“What’s that they’re dragging from the river?” — “A body” — “Oh”.
Relentless. That’s the only word I can use to describe my experience in Cairo. Being my third time in Egypt I thought I was well prepared for the hassle you receive as a tourist but I was wrong. It’s always been one of the worst but given the dramatic downturn in tourism since the Arab Spring and the revolution in 2011 it’s even worse. The Egyptian pound is worth a fraction of what it was and they're determined to feed their families. Unfortunately through me it would appear.
The body was being dragged from the Nile. I was walking to the other side of the river and could see a crowd forming on the bridge. A local intercepted me and told me not to cross the bridge as it was dangerous, that there were demonstrations and I wasn't safe. I’m not sure why but I didn’t believe him, it was a little further into our conversation that he happened to mention his family had a shop down the other road which I would conveniently pass on my safe detour. It was this level of desperation from the locals that got to me. I don't mind the regular scams where everything is out in the open, where they almost introduce themselves — hello, my name is Ahmed and I will be attempting to befriend you with the sole ambition of extracting some money from you. I respond with hello, my name is Rob and I will be alternating between polite discomfort, forceful declination, unnecessarily good manners, and occasional curiosity until I eventually walk away ignoring you.
I’d like to tell you how I met a handful of genuine people and perhaps I did but I didn’t hang around long enough to find out if they had an angle. There was a taxi driver with a Russian ex-wife who lived in Siberia with photos to prove it. He offered to meet me later and show me the real Cairo but it was too late for me then — I was broken. My curiosity was gone and my only desire was to survive.
The pyramids are an impressive sight and almost unbelievable achievement. I originally stayed in Giza where all nine pyramids could be seen from the roof of my hotel. One evening I went to the Sound and Light Show, my expectations were low — it sounded pretty tacky. I walked away with big smile on my face. I mean, it was tacky — but in a good way. It made me think of The Spy Who Loved Me. Or rather it made me think of 1982 when I was an 8 year old boy sat on a velour sofa, picking my nose, watching TV and learning social etiquette from Roger Moore. It really did take me back — it's not changed at all since then.
Visiting the pyramids themselves was the tourist experience you would imagine, I had a driver for the day and we'd been to the other pyramids around the city. On the way to the main attraction back at Giza he mentioned we could go to a government facility where I could see a map of the site and decide if I wanted a camel or horse ride. I made it very clear I didn't want a camel or a horse ride — I wanted to walk around the pyramids. The next thing I know he's saying something about parking and leading me to the horse and camel rental place. I was just so tired of being on guard all the time and disappointed in being flat out ignored. You may think I should have walked away or complained or shouted or something but I was too tired, they'd won through atrophy. So, I took my trusty steed and held on for dear life as we galloped around the site in record speed.
My driver told me to tell the Police I was Scottish as apparently any English (or US) tourists had to have a police escort and neither of us wanted the hassle. I tried explaining to him that surely that would be for any British or UK citizens so my temporary Scottish accent would be futile but I don't think he got my point.
Most evenings I'd find somewhere with a roof terrace to watch the sun set. Sitting high on the rooftops, overlooking the dusty city, there's something beautiful and calming about the call to prayer. Except at 5am. That's not calming at all.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is crammed with, well antiquities of course but there are just so many, almost stacked on top of each other. For a few extra pounds you can go and see a humidified room full of really old famous dead people. "Are you famous?" my museum guide asked me. I'd just been swamped by a group of teenagers wanting selfies with me. I've never wanted to be famous and I could see how it wears thin very quickly, I don't envy anyone famous. The boys were quite comfortable coming up to me directly although were clearly nervous. The girls seemed to come up giggling in pairs, finally asking me what my name was or just saying hello like it was taboo. I seemed to collide with a number of school trips in one day so it was pretty relentless.
I ended up wandering around the Police Museum at the same time as a group of schoolgirls. I'd stopped to look at a model of some British soldiers attacking a police station — the accompanying description was not painting us in a good light. One of the girls was pointing at the diorama and shouting something to me in Arabic. I don’t know what it was but it wasn't good. Being British there’s a common theme when we visit a country — basically we’ve been there and committed some atrocities. Fun fact, the British have undertaken military action in nearly 90% of countries. There are actually only 22 we haven’t invaded. That’s a lot, especially for such a small island, perhaps we have small man syndrome. As much as I think we should keep our hands to ourselves, it almost feels a shame not to just try those last 22 to give us full coverage…