Egypt - A tale of two cities
Guess who’s back, back again! Tuba’s back. Tell a friend! Did you sing that??? It only works if you sing it. If you’re pop-culturally challenged, don’t worry, I got you! Here’s the reference
Dear reader, thank you for coming back!!! It’s been so long! I didn’t know where to begin. How does one just come back from a year-plus-long hiatus? I was wondering what I want to start with because sooo much has happened, and then I remembered back when I was heavy into YouTube in 2014 and 15, and my favourite YouTubers (shout out Patricia Bright and Shirley.B. Eniang) would have these “story time” sessions where they would just keep us up to date with what’s been going on. Do they still do that?? Anyway, I thought I’d do the same on my blog.
And so I began to write about my life since you all last heard from me, and it turns out, A LOT has happened. I did an accounting of my life month by month until June 2022 and then decided it’s better placed for my journal because I have been (by my best attempts) living in the moment and not realizing just how different my life is now. It’s all good stuff, but I’d like to keep it semi-private. So I left it as a journal entry. But what it did, is get my creative juices flowing again!
When I landed in Sharm El Sheikh for the 27th session of the Conference of parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or as we call it in plain English, COP 27, I just knew there will be a story here for me to tell. So let me tell it to you.
I took a flight on 3rd November 2022 from Ndola to Nairobi, where I had an overnight layover and then a very early morning 5-hour flight to Cairo. I am sad to say I slept throughout that entire flight and didn’t take advantage of my window seat privileges. I was tired before I even got there! Although I think I did see two pyramids and took this hazy photo.
Cairo airport (and city, but more on that later) is BUSY! What a buzzing and confusing place!
A few hour's layover and one hour’s flight later, we were in Sharm El Sheikh!
My first thoughts of Sharm El Sheikh were that it’s a beautiful, bright (both during the day and at night) manufactured city. It’s such a purpose-built place, and that’s not a bad thing! They know their audience, and it’s conferences and tourists.
Fun fact: I met a couple from Manchester that has been to the same hotel in Sharm TWENTY SEVEN times!!! That’s how much of a pull this desert - cum - seaside city has on people. I think I would go back too.
One thing I noticed was the conspicuous lack of women in public service spaces. At the airport, the only women I saw were the ones to pat us down, searching for whatever they searched for. All the reception staff, waiters and cleaning staff at the hotels I visited were men. A colleague of mine asked why this is so, and the (male) waiter answered, saying that Sharm El Sheikh is so far away from everything that it’s easier for men to relocate and work here because, you know, women can’t move far from home. It basically reinforced what we were all thinking.
On my second day, I wandered into a bazaar-type shopping centre and got my first taste of what I now refer to as “Wholesome Egyptian Man Flirtation Syndrome.” My colleague pointed out that they are probably just excited to see a woman walking about, unchaperoned. I was kind of prepared for this, which is why I bought headscarves and other appropriate wear.
Other instances of “Wholesome Egyptian Man Flirtation Syndrome” include this one time I asked a waiter if I could sit on the other side of the dining hall, and he said, “You can sit in my heart.” Ha! Another one looked at me and said with panic in his voice, “There is something in your eyes”, and when I, equally panicked, asked what it was, he said, “It is magic, there is magic in your eyes” haha! So, of course, I spent all my money at that last stall because all I needed to hear was how magical my eyes are.
Sharm El Sheikh also gave me my first taste of beach and sea in so long! Seeing the Red Sea was…well, magical. Swimming in the Red Sea was an experience I will never ever forget in my entire life. It’s significant because it’s THEE Red Sea, but also, it’s a personal milestone because I only very recently learnt how to swim, and I wondered if I could do it outside the controlled area of a swimming pool. Turns out I can!! I used that moment I was floating (in the Red Sea) to be grateful for all the good in my life. Nothing like expressing gratitude while communing with nature.
And so, our busy time in Sharm El Sheikh came to an end; though I had a collective 12 or so hours of free time in the eight days I was there, it was still so memorable.
Next stop: Cairo city!!!!
My friend and I had about 26 hours in this populous city, so we booked a half-day tour to take us around the major sights like the pyramids and hopefully a market. We did that and more!! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because while the tour was booked and our flights out of Cairo were ready for the next night, what we didn’t have, that night was accommodation.
My friend landed before me and went to find us a hotel. Upon payment, she was informed that we cannot share a room as earlier planned and they had no extra rooms. So when I joined her a few hours later, I was met with a situation that needed us to act fast because night had already fallen (it gets dark in Egypt this time of the year by 5 pm), and things were getting desperate.
So, I dropped my bags off at the reception of this military hotel, and we walked in the direction of the Intercontinental Hotel signage we saw. My friend said to me, “oh, it’s about a 5-minute walk” ha! Dear reader, never listen to an African when they say that. It was much longer than that, and with cars going by at high speed, it took longer for us to cross the roads and get to our destination. We laughed at ourselves when we saw two seemingly unsupervised kids cross the road faster than us. My excuse is that I live in a small mining town without much traffic; I don't know what her excuse is, as a Nairobian.
Upon arrival at Inters, we were told that they have a suite for us for the low, low price of $700 USD.
I involuntarily let out a tired, panicked, dejected laugh and asked if they know where we could find something about 600 dollars cheaper, and the receptionist said all the hotels in the area are booked. I thought to myself… how is this possible?? Isn’t everyone in Sharm El Sheikh? 😆 Apparently not!
So off we went to walk again, this time without a plan. My friend, who has the gift of interpretation, and can understand the English-Arabic mix we encountered, asked a security guard where we can find a hotel, and, standing nearby, was someone who would turn out to be our hero.
He and my friend spoke in their pidgin English Arabic while I stood there, berating myself for not just booking the accommodation on Airbnb like I booked the experience we had planned for the next day. Our hero, who shall remain unnamed because we never got his name, made a phone call and told us he could take us to an available hotel that would allow us to share the room.
Yay! Light at the end of this dark night!
We got to the hotel and quickly discovered that Cairo is a city of connections. No way would we have gotten that room had we wandered in by ourselves.
A few passport exchanges and card swipes later; we were ushered to our room!!
Oh! Never have I been so happy to see a hotel room with twin beds in a 4-star hotel! We slumped on the beds and then remembered we were hungry! So off we went to look for food.
Remember what I said about Cairo being busy and buzzing?? It worked well in our favour. While In Sharm, we were introduced to Egypt’s 24-hour economy when we went to a place called “Old Market”, which in addition to men who can see magic in one's eyes, has restaurants, grocery shops, jewellers and stalls with clothes, trinkets, Egyptian cotton products and sweets.
Armed with the knowledge that Egypt practically never sleeps and vague instructions to “Walk, then turn right and right again”, we embarked on a quest to get food.
The time was 9:30 something PM, and we went past a pharmacy that was open, a bank still open, fruit stalls (Colombia still has the best fruit selection, in my opinion, but Egypt is a close second) and a seafood restaurant.
I was wary of getting seafood, and we walked on, hoping to find a place that replicated the authentic restaurant experience we had in Sharm. We came upon a food place called GAD, and the compressed meats on metallic shawarma skewers were enough to convince us to stay.
We got rice and beef koftas, and half chicken and salads and a Fanta orange for me. The meal was just okay. I wished I got a shawarma instead.
I wanted to try out some of the fruits we’d seen in the next-door stall, and we found the guy making smoothies from the fresh fruit he sells! Talk about value addition!
He sold us a mix of kiwi, avocado, milk and honey, and it changed our lives!!!! What a heavenly taste! It more than made up for the mediocre meal we’d just had. I hope I can recreate that mix soon, although I may not because I don’t want to spoil the magic.
We walked back happily to our hotel, passed out for about six hours, and woke up bright and early to get ready for our Cairo experience (no, not THAT kind of experience).
The experience, booked on Airbnb, promised a professional photographer and an experienced Egyptologist to take us to the great pyramids of Giza, The Cheops - Chefren - Mekeranos Pyramids, a pro-photoshoot at the 9 Pyramids View, The Grand Sphinx (which I low-key didn’t believe existed till I saw it), The Valley Temple, The Saqqara Pyramids, The Step Pyramid, Step tomb, an exploration of Memphis City and The Statue of Ramsis the Great.
We visited the Great Pyramids of Giza, and, as I said in my review on Airbnb, our Egyptologist, Abubakar, gave off the energy that he had done this a million times over, sometimes even multiple times a day.
He told us that the largest pyramid was the tomb of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu, and while it is (only) 138 metres high now, it was much higher, standing at 146.6 metres high, but ancient Egyptians would break off stones from the top to build their own houses. He also explained how it took 100,000 men 30 years of daily working to build one pyramid.
We never got into any of the pyramids of Giza because he said there are no hieroglyphics or mummies inside, so we made the executive (but heavily influenced by Abubakar) decision to go to the fun parts.
Let me preface this by directing your attention towards the irreverent message on my colleague's T-shirt in the pic below: it says, “9 out of 10 men who try camels prefer women”, and you know what? I can’t fault them!
A camel ride has to be the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced in a long time! I couldn’t possibly imagine using that as a daily means of transportation. But, the sheer anticipation of seeing the 9 Pyramids from what they call “the panoramic view” had me sitting tight on that camel.
Our photographer, Paula, was amazing!!!
He may be the only reason why I started blogging again because where else would it be acceptable to upload 500 gazillion pics of myself?? Haha! And yes, this is the real reason for this long piece, I wanted to show these beautiful pics.
After an amazing 90-minute photo shoot for my friend and me, we got back on those uncomfortable camels and rode back to where our car was waiting for us to take us to our next excursion.
The trip promised us a viewing of the sphinx, and off we went!
It was simultaneously unceremonious and significant.
I often forget that these big monuments we learn about in history and geography are normal things for the people that live there. I am reminded of the first time I saw The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, and our driver just whizzed past until I saw signage saying “great rift valley viewing point”. I was the only person on that trip who had never seen the Great Rift Valley, so I was the only one who was as excited.
Our tour guide, Abubakar, completely cancelled the promised tour to the rest of the pyramids saying in his Egyptian-American accent, “Well, we can go there, but if you see one, you’ve seen them all”, and of course, because my friend and I are uncultured travellers, we opted to go to a perfumery and for a shopping experience.
We stopped at a little dark shop that sells fragranced oils and were given a detailed description of all the different oils and what they are good for.
We should have known, though, that the goal was to get us to buy something. There, we realized that the tour operators and shop owners work together to get customers, with tour guides being given a commission, either in cash or kind, for every paying customer. The oils were so irresistibly sweet smelling, so I got two, and my friend bought about 4. What a shopaholic!
Still reeling from having just been semi-tricked into buying perfumes, we went to a papyrus museum and learnt how authentic papyrus paper is made. Fun fact- until I heard the word, I had only read it and, as such, pronounced it as pah-PEE-rus.
We again were rushed into purchasing something from there, but we were wiser this time, so we politely declined and left the store. It’s interesting, though, because my friend asked about contact details so she could possibly order something online, and the attendant told us that we can only go back there with the guide. You truly need connections for this glorious, chaotic, beautiful city.
We left there and visited a huge department store called Cotton Flower that sells all kinds of “I went to Egypt merchandise”, from clothing to home decor. It was an authentic experience because even locals and non-tourists shop there, so we didn’t feel haggled or overcharged. All in all, despite issues with our bank cards (thanks for nothing, FNB and KCB), we managed to get what we wanted.
On the way to the hotel and eventually the airport, we stopped to get some shawarmas, so I could expand my working theory of the best shawarmas in Southern Africa being in Zambia, particularly in Kitwe, particularly, at the famous restaurant called After 10. I digress, but I’d like to say that Cairo shawarma is not bad, and the sauces were really, really good. So by the powers vested in me, by myself, I hereby declare that the one random place in El Tahrir that we tried out has the best shawarma sauces in all of North Africa. LoL.
I hope this helps anyone planning a trip to Cairo. I always recommend getting a paid tour guide to show you around, so here is a link to the Airbnb experience we got.
If you made it this far, thank you! I love that you chose to be a willing subject for my writing.
Please let me know what you think, and keep coming back! I cannot promise I’ll be more consistent, but I will write as much as I can.