Journal: Thursday 2 January 2003
I woke up early this morning with a stomping migraine – something I suffer with from time to time and after several hours of wishing I was dead, I eventually surfaced at 1.00pm. By the time I felt a little better Sam had already written off the day and we decided to mooch about taking it fairly easy for the rest of the afternoon. Sam and I have three days here in Cairo before meeting another friend, Jane, who is arriving on Saturday evening from England and then on Sunday we can begin our adventures for real.
So our day began rather late by taking a taxi to the Nile Hilton on the other side of town. We started with the intention of dropping in at the Egyptian Museum for an hour or two before it closed, but I still wasn’t feeling too great and the terrace of the Hilton was as far as we got. The traffic in Cairo, especially this time of the day when the evening ‘rush-hour’ was already building, was as frenetic as ever and our taxi-driver wove in and out of the lanes, narrowly avoiding several other cars and quite a few pedestrians, with his hand hovering always just above the horn. The Hilton is a little oasis of calm just off the busy Midan Tahrir and Sam and I had a drink while watching tourists wealthier than us, coming and going. A couple of cups of good coffee perked me up, though it sounds a strange cure for migraine, and afterwards we ambled through the hotel shopping arcade. My favourite shop was Nomad, a tiny place that sold Bedouin clothes and jewellery at excellent prices and I bought a scarf and some lovely cards.
Cairo is the place to buy absolutely anything you need, Sam told me, and she knows all the best places to go. She had her heart set on a particular Egyptian ring-tone tune for her new mobile phone, so we set off in another taxi to Sharia Abd al-Aziz. I’ve noticed in the last few years how quickly Egypt has become a mobile phone culture, even more so than the West as fewer people here have telephones in their homes. Every man and boy over the age of thirteen seems to be constantly shouting into a phone wherever they are. I’m not a technophobe, but my own mobile is shared with my husband and whoever uses the car takes the phone for emergencies. I don’t think anyone has ever rung us on it! This could be due to the fact that we can’t get a signal where we live and so it’s rarely switched on, but I can never understand why people have to be in constant touch with the rest of the world in this way, sharing every shouted conversation with a dozen others around them. Abd al-Aziz is a long street that sells everything of an electrical nature, from computers to washing machines. Each shop is devoted to selling electrical goods of some sort and we were dropped off at an indoor arcade crammed with stalls selling mobile phones and every imaginable accessory. It was packed with people and we had to elbow ourselves through the crowd to get to a stall that Sam had visited before. Sam had to shout loudly to make herself heard as other customers tried to push in front. This is obviously not considered to be a place for women and especially not for European women, but eventually the stallholder found the Amr Diab tune she wanted on his computer and was able to download it onto her phone. A few pounds changed hands and an hour or so after we arrived, she was a happy bunny and I was only too pleased to escape from the madhouse out into the fresh air because I was beginning to feel fragile again.
We walked to the top of Abd al-Aziz to Midan al-Ataba and I was reminded of all the historical books I’ve read about Cairo’s colonial past. This was the area of ‘Opera’ (Midan al-Ubra) with it’s faded French colonial-style architecture and home to the once-famous, romantic sounding, Ezbekia (Azbaklya) Gardens, which was disappointingly a very small park with bare patches of grass and surrounded by peeling iron railings. At Ataba we went into another arcade, a street of watchmakers this time. Sam was looking for a new watch and the watch with Arabic numerals I had bought in Luxor a year ago hadn’t lasted long, so I thought I’d have a look around too. Each stall sold a massive assortment of watches, many different styles ranging from a few pounds to a few thousand. Whether you wanted a Rollex copy or a real one, this was obviously the place to come. But Sam couldn’t make up her mind and I couldn’t see anything I really liked either. In this case a huge choice is not the answer. My head was still thumping and more coffee was needed, so we headed back in the general direction of our hotel, stopping in Adli Street for a drink. I was very glad Sam was with me as I’d have been hopelessly lost by now on my own. Another long walk actually helped my head, though the torpid lead-laden air could not be called fresh by any stretch of the imagination. I hadn’t eaten anything at all today, so as it was almost 9.00pm we stopped for dinner at a little restaurant Sam knew near Rameses station.
A new experience for me. This was nothing like the Luxor restaurants I’m used to, many of which are geared towards catering for western tourists, but was where the local population in this part of Cairo come to eat. There were a couple of tables downstairs and four larger scrubbed wooden tables upstairs where we went, each provided with a battered aluminium water jug and several tin mugs. The waiter came and asked what we wanted – no menus here! The choice was beef, chicken or liver and an assortment of vegetables, accompanied by vibrant plastic bowls of sticky white rice. We started with soup, a thin watery concoction that tasted fantastic though I didn’t enquire too closely as to what was floating in it. To follow I had a small portion of rice with several delicious heaps of stewed vegetables. As a vegetarian I often miss out on the finer cuisine in Egypt, but I certainly couldn’t fault this meal. All was accompanied by a tall stack of the local flat bread piled up on the bare table. I hadn’t realised I was so hungry. Around us, galabeya-clad Egyptians came and went in ones and twos – they were mostly men and spent only about five minutes each on their meal. I’ve never seen people eat so quickly and I’m sure they didn’t pause to enjoy or think about what they were having, before washing it all down with several mugs of water, scrubbing their hands under a tap behind the kitchen and leaving.
Cairo seems to come alive at night and as we left the restaurant around 10.00pm the square around the railway station was crammed with stalls selling cigarettes, cheap luggage, shoes, clothes and plastic goods, each stall decorated with festive strings of electric light bulbs. Families with young children were crowded around each stall and everyone seemed to be shouting at nobody in particular. Walking past the station towards the Ciao Hotel we had to take our life into our hands to cross the busy road, teeming with traffic even at this time of night. And then we were safely back, still with time to plan what we would do tomorrow.