Journal: Monday 11 January 2010
I didn’t sleep very well, probably too excited by being back in Cairo, until the early morning when I was woken at 8.30 by a man coming into my bedroom to clean. He was most apologetic, I suppose most tourists don’t lie around in bed this late, but we’d had quite a late night. I got up straight away and had a shower, a quick one because the water was cold, and went down to breakfast, where I was shortly joined by Sam. Breakfast here consists of the usual buffet of bread rolls and croissants, jams, a selection of cheeses, tomatoes, cucumber and hard boiled eggs. I asked for an omelette which was very nice. Sam had brought her cafetiere because we knew there were only little packets of Nescafe on offer here and I was grateful for that. In fact both of us had brought a couple of kilos of ground coffee in our luggage. When I looked out of my window earlier this morning it was grey and cloudy, but by the time we had finished breakfast the sun was shining. As we left the dining room I noticed that everywhere in the hotel, something is being painted or varnished. My only comment is that I wish they would get rid of the huge faded artificial flower arrangement in reception that looks like it has been there since the hotel was built. The Egyptians do like their plastic flowers!
We began the day by taking a taxi out to Abassiya to the SCA offices to pick up sites permissions we had applied for, which in past years was just a formality. When we got to the office however, we were told that things have changed and they are not issued there anymore, but at Zamalek. We took another taxi right across Cairo and over the river to Zamalek. We knew where the office was there but couldn’t remember the name of the street and we got out of the taxi in the wrong place. The traffic in Cairo was the worst I’ve ever seen, almost at a standstill. Unfortunately when we left the taxi we walked in the wrong direction and ended up walking right around the block before we found the SCA offices. Here we saw another officer that we have also met before and who now deals with the permissions, but he told us that we would have to come back tomorrow and see Zahi Hawass in person. I thought that Dr Hawass, as head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and known by the media as the ‘Indiana Jones of Egypt’, must have better things to do than sign permissions. Neither of us felt we wanted to come back, a little worried about being interviewed by him, but decided we must keep trying if we wanted to see any out of the way places and anyway it would seem rude not to. This was not a good start.
We next took a taxi back across the river to Midan Tahrir to go to the American University in Cairo (AUC) bookshop, one of our favourite ports of call in Cairo. Having risked our necks crossing the road to get there, we were told that it had moved. Having already walked around the streets of Zamalek, we set off again to find the bookshop, which turned out to be a couple of blocks away. The new bookshop is very smart and glossy, set on two floors, but they didn’t have many interesting titles in the Egyptology section that we didn’t already have. They were however, selling ‘Zahi Hawass Hats’ (his media trademark) and we joked about buying one each for tomorrow’s meeting.
Did I mention the roads? Traffic rules here are only observed when there is a policeman with a whistle and baton waving his arms and sometimes not even then. Maybe this is why he wears a hard helmet. Red traffic lights seem to be ignored and the several lanes of vehicles in Tahrir Square jockey for position by manoeuvring back and forth across the road. Horns are leant on continuously for seemingly no reason at all by bored or frustrated drivers. As you can imagine the noise and fumes are appalling, but at least the drivers for the most part miraculously manage to avoid collisions. Apparently to hit a pedestrian is the worst sin of all, so hoping this was true we left the bookshop and plunged again into the traffic. Once on the other side of the square we headed towards the Egyptian Museum and the Nile Hilton, now called the Nile Hotel. As we walked along the back of the hotel it all looked very closed, then we realised that the whole back of the building, where the restaurant terrace used to be, has been pulled down. We went further, towards the museum and around to the front of the hotel, only to be told by a security guard that the hotel is closed, probably for refurbishment. What a shame, this was one of my favourite places to chill out in Cairo. No more Nomad or Miss Egypt or el-Ahram, or shopping mall. This was the final straw for us in a day that has been a bit of a disaster, or at least a waste of precious time. After a quick glance at the huge crowd entering the Egyptian Museum, we took a taxi back to the Victoria, which took an hour through the clogged traffic in fumes that were particularly obnoxious – and it wasn’t even rush hour yet!
Back in the hotel Sam and I had coffee and a sandwich in the comfortable lounge. Afterwards I went into the ‘internet café’ with the intention of sending some emails, but I couldn’t remember my webmail password, so I had a quick look at a couple of sites and logged off. The hotel doesn’t offer guests wireless internet, but it does have a little cubby hole in the corner of a glass-roofed garden with a few aging computers.
Later we went to Hatay, a familiar nearby restaurant for dinner, a fantastic meal of rice and vegetables of all sorts, along with tahina and salads and the ubiquitous flat bread piled on the table. Afterwards we walked down to the same coffee shop as last night. The mosquitoes were biting again. I didn’t think I had been bitten last night but they have come up today and are very itchy. I bought some vitamin B complex which usually seems to work for me. I wasn’t expecting Cairo to be so warm at this time of year.