CAIRO – DAY ONE: Feb 12, 2015
Strange are the ways of the camel
stranger than anyone thinks.
For once, in a moment of weakness,
he tried to make love to the Sphinx.
Now, the Sphinx’s posterior profundum
is clogged with the sands of the Nile,
Which accounts for the hump on the camel
and the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile.
With apologies and thanks to my late father, a maestro at the art of the ribald nonsense rhyme.
After two days of sandstorms, which affected President Putin’s visit to Egypt (but not ours) we arrive in Cairo via Istanbul. The fairly new Cairo airport is surprisingly empty (look – it’s true; no tourists!) but we speak too quickly. Fairly soon a Lufthansa flight deposits more white faces and we stand in the non-line to get visas (now I remember that Arabs do not line up; they hang around in a clump and wait for an opportunity).
Our bags arrive amazingly quickly and we skirt the line of taxi drivers pleading for our business and survey the mob waiting on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows just beyond the exit. Many are waving signs for contracted customers and each one tries to elbow the rest aside to greet you first as you and your luggage squeeze through the double doors. Glommed against the window is an elderly and fragile-looking man in turban, white beard and caftan who could have been out of central casting or the bible. He is pressed against the glass like everyone else, staring into the 21st century. Your camel awaits, madam.
As soon as we brave the doors, Kareem, our driver, springs into view with a sign announcing our correctly spelled names and Rasha, our guide (and the only woman in sight) jumps up behind him. Rasha is about to become my new best friend; we like each other instantly and chat non-stop for the 45 minute drive through Heliopolis to the upscale Zamalek district on a island in the Nile opposite downtown Cairo.
Even at 9:30 PM the traffic is nuts. Well of course it’s nuts; there are NO traffic lights. It’s also the beginning of the Friday/Saturday weekend. As we cross the Nile, fireworks appear out of nowhere. Thankfully I am not coming from a war zone, so the sound does not freak me out, but I would imagine that a city that has been on edge would not encourage fireworks. Rasha assumes it’s a wedding, and it is, the bride is all decked out in flowing white gown holding flowers, standing on the sidewalk as traffic roars past. If you can’t afford a reception, this is an option. Bring your homemade fireworks and ignore the traffic, noise and pollution and don’t even think about the muck touching the bottom of your white dress.
Right after the bridge, we clog up behind an accident involving several cars, all of whose occupants are in the street gesticulating frantically and screaming at each other. Somehow Kareem chugs past and we get a glimpse of the faded glory of past Ottoman architecture of the elegant apartment buildings of Zamalek. We pull up to Marriot Omar Khayam, go through security (under the car, in the trunk) with K-9 sniffing dogs in their cute guardhouse (somehow cute is not what you want) and more security as we enter the hotel.
The hotel complex includes the palace built in 1869 to house the many royal guests celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal and the palace is fabulous. Great Damascene chandeliers are reflected in enormous ormalu frames the length of formal meeting rooms, bars, restaurants.
We check in, make arrangements with Rasha for the next day, are disappointed to discover that we are not staying in an Ottoman palace but in a plain old Marriott room (well, duh) and crash from jet lag.