In my – and the British Council‘s – infinite wisdom, I went to Cairo last week. There’s been a revolution, there’s an election coming up, and the BC and my company thought that there might be some opportunities for the creative & cultural sector in Egypt to do something interesting.
Turns out, we were right.
Egypt’s tourist economy since the revolution has dropped by about 1/3. We did our bit – visiting the Pyramids, Old Cairo, and a big mosque in one day, as well as overpaying for a taxi. All in all, I think I got taken in for about £50 in scams. Not too bad, really, though I would rather have given that money to non-scammers. Such is life.
The Egyptians that welcomed us, however, including the TedxCairo folk, the Cairo Hackerspace crew, and all the Culture Shift winners were brilliant.
I took a couple of days out afterwards mostly to walk around, meet people, and see things. Cairo is:
- Overwhelming. At in the range of 16M people in slightly less space than London takes up. Personal space is different here. Queueing is accomplished by pushing and iron railings.
- Inexpensive. You can spend as much or as little as you like. I recommend Khosheri, particularly Khosheri Tahrir, right off of Tahrir Square
- Evolving. Every single day. From Khan el Khalili to crossing the road to Tahrir Square, you can see and feel change in the air. People are angry. People are hopeful. People are filled with the sense of the possible. People are concerned. There’s an election, and will be a new constitution, soon.
- Friendly. I’ve lived in quite a few places, with very friendly people. Everyone in Egypt helps each other out, at a moment’s notice. This is probably my favourite thing about Egypt. Whether it’s a taxi driver getting directions (the mode d’operandi seems to be to drive nearby and then ask for directions) or random strangers stopping to help each other with their load. Dear the rest of us: we could learn a thing or 2 from this “developing” country.
- Safe. The note for travellers that I got said, essentially, “You’ll get ripped off, so they won’t bother stealing from you”.
- Dry. See also: Dusty. Beautiful architecture stuck under layers of dust that a few months of rain wouldn’t touch.
- Tout-y. The worst thing about Cairo. If you’ve friends who are locals or something, it’s really helpful. One wants to be open to friendliness on the street, as it can open lots of doors for one – dinners, impromptu tours, etc. One gets easily trapped, though, and one’s politeness is easily used to magick a few pounds out of one’s wallet. They’re good at it. But they don’t realise that they’re cannibalising future revenues, and how much that can affect things. This is something that the tourism authority (trying to boost tourism back up to that 15M/year mark) needs to get to grips with – people are happy to pay extra for taxis or to pay for things, but no, thanks, I don’t actually want a camel ride, or those tchotchkes, or papyrus paintings. I just want to look and walk and talk and eat and drink and, perhaps, smoke shisha.
All in all: brilliant. I’m looking forward to going back – with Clare next time – and to spending a bit more time (Hello, Alexandria!)