Joburg Expat: Journey to the Other End of Africa

July 13, 2012

Journey to the Other End of Africa

Maybe we shouldn't have taken the camel tour.

We really should know better by now, after fifteen years of travelling with children. When it comes to exploring dusty, smelly, and crowded places, some of our kids don't do so well. Actually, to be completely truthful, not just the kids.

Sunset view of the Nile. See what I mean? It always looks great on the pictures afterwards.
[click on image for panorama view]

Courtyard of one of the mosques in the Citadel of Cairo

The problem is that in theory these faraway lands always sound so exotic. Like Zanzibar. Doesn't it immediately make you think of spices and sailing ships and mysterious Arabs of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights variety, with loopy earrings and a scimitar tucked in their belts? So you embark on a tour through Stone Town and expect to be transported to this magical fantasy of yours. Except you won't. Because your senses are assaulted by the mounds of dirt you trip over, by the dust shimmering in the oppressive heat, and by the choking smells wafting all around you. You immediately wish to be anywhere else but here, and the only reason you don't say it out loud is that your kids have already said it out loud fifty-three times. There is nothing to do but put on a chipper face and suffer through not only the heat and dust and dirt but also the whining about the heat and dust and dirt. If you're a parent, you will agree that the latter is by far more punishing than the former. You tide yourself over by taking a bazillion pictures, which, when you look at them six months later, look stunning.

Outside view of Mohammad Ali Mosque

The dome of Mohammad Ali Mosque from the inside

View of Cairo from the Citadel [Click on image for panorama view]

So we looked at someone else's stunning pictures of a recent diving trip to the Red Sea and decided to go there during the kids' midterm break in July, to put yet another African country on our family map. The one at the very opposite end of the continent we've come to love. Nothing sounded better than getting away from the freezing mornings and mid-winter doldrums of Joburg than forty-plus degrees of desert heat in Sharm-el-Sheikh. To get there we were going to pass through Cairo, and immediately we decided we'd have to spend a few days there first. Cairo sounded - you guessed it - so exotic! Noisette's father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Africa after WWII - a fascinating story all on its own that I will write about one day - and his occasional nightly escapes to Cairo from his camp in the desert (he always returned to camp, having learned earlier that true escape was futile) to take in the freedom and magic of a big city are part of family lore.

Maybe anything looked good after the drudgery of the desert. Maybe it looked much better at night. And maybe in the space of 65 years a few details got lost. He certainly made it sound charming and sparkling and pretty, what with music and lights from all the boats on the Nile floating through the balmy night air of 1947 Cairo. The smell of Turkish coffee emanating from the souk was probably added on by my own imagination.

View of Cairo's rooftops...

...and more rooftops...

...and rooftops yet again. I was fascinated with the rooftops.

In any case, setting eyes on Cairo one early July morning in 2012 was a bit of a letdown. Cairo is brown and dusty and dirty. Making Johannesburg, after two months of winter and no rain not exactly a lush paradise either, appear positively green and clean in comparison. And Joburg doesn't even have a river flowing through it, let alone one as big as the Nile. You are somewhat removed from all that dirt and noise in your nice hotel - have I told you that we are snobs? - but only to a certain extent. Because from your 18th floor vantage point, high above everything else, you can see down on all the other rooftops and you briefly wonder why all the buildings are unfinished, until you realize that they are indeed finished but that finishing, in Egypt, doesn't entail removing all the building rubble. They simply leave it there when done. It looks like bombs have recently hit.


Entrance to the Egyptian Museum

Cairo's version of the minibus taxi. Unlike their Joburg cousins, they don't have to pass you
illegally on the side of the road, because they can magically squeeze through any gap.


We had two days in Cairo. One for the Egyptian Museum and one for the pyramids. Noisette had had a lively email conversation with the hotel to select a few different tours for us, but of course when we showed up at the front desk, ready to go on our city tour, nothing was arranged. But not to worry, that's where Hassan came in. We didn't want to wait two hours for the official tour guide to show up, so the hotel arranged a private car and driver for us, for the sum of LE 600 per day (Egyptian Pounds, similar in value to ZAR). 


Hassan, the driver, was all smiles. His yearning, he assured us, was to make us happy. He hustled us all into the car, plunged himself into Cairo's crazy traffic, hand firmly on his horn, and chatted away calling me and the girls "my queen" and "my princess" and asking our plans. Our plan was to visit the museum this first day, and perhaps the Citadel as well, but it was soon evident that Hassan had other plans. His yearning, you see, was also to make the most of his newfound source of income, and a quick calculation no doubt showed him that the pyramids would be a more profitable enterprise for him than the museum. So he convinced us that today was the perfect day to see the pyramids, even though we  hadn't brought water or hats or sun screen. Maybe we can be excused for only half-listening because we were too busy gaping at Egypt's version of minibus taxis in the form of VW buses passing us left and right, all of them with open boot, excuse me, bonnet (to provide much needed cooling for their poor screaming engines) with absolutely no regard for the concept of  lanes. In fact, none of the streets had any lanes printed on them, no doubt because no one adheres to them anyway, so why bother with the paint.


Everyone was honking their horns and cheering to celebrate Egypt's newly sworn in president.

I don't really want to know Cairo's traffic fatality statistics

A demonstration of the making of papyrus (followed by a demonstration of the stripping of
money from gullible tourist pockets).


We hadn't gone very far, with no pyramids in sight, when we came to our first stop. "The 'First Papyrus Museum of Egypt'," Hassan proudly announced. We absolutely had to see this, he informed us, because he wanted us to be completely happy and his conscience wouldn't bear it if he deprived us of this experience. So out we spilled of the car, and into this venerable institution. Where we were treated like royalty and offered tea and lemon and hibiscus juice (I could see a worried frown emerging on Noisette's forehead, because the dispensing of free stuff  never bodes well for a quick and inexpensive exit from such a place). Where we were shown how papyrus is peeled, hammered flat, soaked, and pressed (in all honesty probably the highlight of our trip as far as the kids were concerned). Where we were then informed that due to the revolution - bless the new president, Mohamed Morsi, who had just been sworn in the previous day - and the disastrous effect it had on tourism, the Egyptian government had decided to give us a 25% discount on all purchases, so that a medium-sized piece of papyrus could be acquired for the very reasonable price of only $40. 


We escaped after purchasing the smallest and least kitschy papyrus painting we could find, vowing to be more vigilant about Hassan's itinerary from now on, but with little luck. He proceeded to show us a lot of Cairo over the next two days in just this fashion. Into the car, murderous drive using every available and not available lane, out of the car at the next must-see location, where he invariably happened to know a guy who wanted to show us around for money, then off to find a money changer to refill our fast-dwindling supplies of Egyptian Pounds. Our happiness was his main concern, he'd tell us all day long, and his other equally big concern was the prospect of a nice big tip from "Mr. Noisette" at the end, the odds of which he tried to improve every once in a while by pulling me, "My Queen," to the side and whispering in my ear how very much he hoped I was happy and would convey my happiness to Mr. Noisette so that he would give a nice tip.


Posing right on Tahrir Square in what must have been one of the calmest weeks this year,
what with the new president just being elected days earlier and the country in a frenzy of
celebration and hope.

Everywhere we went, signs were being unfurled alerting visitors to the winds of change
blowing through Egypt (in as many languages as interesting grammatical constructs)


I found the constant hounding for tips incredibly tiring. The guys cleaning your room at the hotel - and they were indeed always guys, never women - did nothing but hang around in front of your door all day, asking you at every opportunity if you needed anything. When you'd just settled nicely in your bed at night, they'd knock at the door, asking you if you were absolutely sure you didn't need anything. You'd say "no thank you" and try to push them back out the door, at which point they'd start listing all the things you might need, like ice, more towels, something for the minibar? You'd be on the verge of asking them for a piece of rope to strangle the annoying butler when they'd finally make their exit, only to appear again the next morning bright and early, informing you that the shift was changing and they wouldn't be here when you're checking out, hint, hint. When I asked my father in law about this afterwards, he assured me that it was exactly the same in 1947. In fact, not bearing any gifts aka tips was probably the main reason he and his friends were captured the first time they had tried to break out from camp - the village elders they asked to hide them most likely got tired of no rewards materializing.

Nothing much seems to have changed in Egypt.

But we did get to see a lot of Cairo thanks to Hassan and frequent trips to the money changer. It might not be pretty, but fascinating nonetheless. Having our picture taken at Tahrir Square - most likely we picked the very safest week to be there, right after an election that made everybody feel ecstatic and before the military and supreme court started clashing again with the new government - and visiting a mosque, Coptic church, and synagogue all in one day were the highlights of our stay.

And do you know what? We saw at least four  more "Official Egyptian Papyrus Museums" along the way. Thankfully, we didn't stop at any of them.


As for the camel tour - some of  us didn't do so well with that, while some others could have ridden off into the desert for days. Who was who?


Stay tuned, and you'll find out in the next post. In the meantime, here are some more Cairo pictures.

The tent city at Tahrir Square

Some mosques I wasn't allowed into, and some I was only allowed into if I dressed up as
a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I have no idea who that woman was, by the way.

Women in full veil never cease to fascinate me. The mystery of what might lie behind. And
the mystery of how in the world their kids can ever find their mommas.

More views of the Citadel which is the perfect proof of my theory that pictures in hindsight
make everything look so much better than the real thing. Although that day was actually
fairly tolerable, due to the wise decision to ditch our kids at the hotel and set off on our own.

Statue of Ibrahim Pasha in the courtyard of the Citadel. I think he was one in a long line of
Ottoman rulers, but I can't be sure, because there was no explanation.

Covered well in Coptic Cairo. One of Hassan's many friends led us there and told us it was
the very place Moses' basket was thrown into the canal that swept it to the banks of the
Nile. But who knows? Of course there was no sign.

Inside of the Hanging Church in the Coptic Quarter. The only place far and wide with air
conditioning, and therefore busy playground for Cairo families on a Sunday outing.

Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo

Street views from God know where it was that Hassan drove us around

Another favorite Cairo mode of transport, right next to the minibus taxi

Finally, a glance of the pyramids

Camel parking

10 comments :

Jasmine said...

There are plenty of "veiled" women in Johannesburg (myself included) that you could fetishize without having to leave your home. Have you not been to Lens?

Oh, and thank you for referring to my religious garb as "Ku Klux Klan" attire. Really, how rude.

Sine said...

Jasmine, I'm sorry if I offended you. It was really meant like a joke. I wasn't referring to Muslim religious clothing as Ku Klux Clan attire, it's just that this particular garment they gave me didn't remotely look like Muslim religious clothing. I would have loved to have a real hajib to wear, or burka, or whatever the case may be. But as you can see for yourself, the thing with the pointy hat is nothing I imagine a Muslim woman might actually put on.

Yes, I am know there are many Muslim women in Johannesburg, and I've been fielding many requests for Muslim expats who have questions about moving here regarding schools and much else. Though I don't know Lens.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, it's really very easy to be offended by what might,to my eyes, be the most innocuous of comments. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity at all will know that there is no malice or intention to offend here. Makes one realize what a minefield writing has become. Carry on, Sine.

Sine said...

Thanks!

And yes, it's hard not to offend unless you want to be the most boring and politically correct writer. Which I do not intend to be. I just think some people go out looking for ways to be offended instead of reading things with an open mind. I, for one, don't get offended easily. I got a wonderful laugh the other day from an American expat in Germany making fun of the "inspection shelf toilets" customary there. Toilets that I grew up with and used all my life! Should I have been offended by this?

On second thought, now I'm probably being offensive by somehow equating religion with toilets...

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

You wrote: "your senses are assaulted by the mounds of dirt you trip over, by the dust shimmering in the oppressive heat, and by the choking smells wafting all around you."

Yes,often we get a reality check when we actually visit in real life the places that we've been fantasizing about as exotic and fabulous.

Anyway, it's all part of the experience and Egypt will leave you with interesting memories.

Sine said...

Yes you're right. It's funny - after a week of processing a bazillion Egypt pictures the memory of it is already so much better than the actual thing! Now if I can only get the rest of my family to subscribe to the "we're making interesting memories" theory and engage in a little less whining!

Maria said...

Loved all the photos! From my vantage point in the middle of an unremarkable city in North America, it certainly does look exotic. (I checked the parking lot at my local Wal-Mart and there isn't a single camel there.)

Sine said...

Haha! But trust me, the parking lot of a Walmart was the place my kids much rather would have liked to be! Which just goes to show that you can't let your kids do the choosing...

W. A. Jeffrey said...

You didn't pick the best time of year to visit. That said, Egypt is a fascinating country with a rich history and culture. You cannot have a proper understanding of world history if you leave out Egypt. Unfortunately the country has been a mess for quite a long time. Since achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1922 Egypt has been ravaged by fits of nationalism, socialism, and religious extremism. While somewhat rocky at the time, the period from 1922 to 1953 was somewhat of a golden age compared to what has come since. Egypt has massive potential because of its history, location, and wealth of human capital. To reach that potential they are going to have to find a way to keep the government and religion separate and develop some sort of pluralism that the public can find acceptable.

As for the country smelling like a camel's armpit, that is because of a lack of modern infrastructure; especially the sanitation end of it. I suppose if you could travel back in time to the early 1800's and visit London or New York they wouldn't have smelled too lovely either.

Sine said...

It might not have been the best time of year, but certainly the best time IN years, because before and after the country was ravaged by revolution. As for the smell, you're absolutely right. And honestly, it didn't bother me much at all - the constant hustling for tips is what bothered me much more. It is so aggressive and not gracious at all. Although reading this now, after some years have passed, I really have to laugh at Hassan's antics. Who can blame him? And he did call me "My Queen" - I shouldn't complain.