Friday, February 6, 2009

Breakfast on the Nile

Some photos and notes to start out, and a loooooong arsed post coming up in a few days.

Cairo does not deserve one of its two reputations.

I'm not speaking of the first - of being a city of history and invasion, of decay and rebuilding, as the 'Mother of the World'. It certainly does deserve that reputation, and I say this after having seen only two sections of it.

But there is another, parallel Cairo, one that's famous for hassles and touts, pollution and scams, sexism and terror. This reputation was never earned, it was merely bestowed with staggering naivete.

We drifted around Bombay's international airport - all spiffy and new and utterly unappreciated by us - in a fog at midnight, one, two. After a tousled sleep on the airplane, I awoke to pre-dawn Cairo glittering below me. By the time a 'rosy fingered dawn' (to be Homeric about it) was creasing the horizon, we were in a ramshackle taxi, speeding towards downtown Cairo. The taxi smelt of gasoline, which worried me, and the driver wanted to smoke, which worried me more. We dissuaded him and he assured us the oil smell was from spilling it on his clothes earlier.

Why he wanted to smoke in that know, I prefer not to think about it.

At the airport, five guys took our one luggage trolley to the curb and then all of them demanded baksheesh. They didn't get any and I considered myself thoroughly introduced to Cairo. I don't want to know why these five guys were hanging out in the airport parking lot at 5am to begin with.

Our hotel, which seemed to advertise itself so flamboyantly as being in its own building, is actually on the 7th floor of a generic building. The hotel itself, however, is fine, complete with five or six chain-smoking men who watch cricket and wait until some work comes there way, a charming Art Deco lobby, a good enough restaurant and a thoroughly sketchy bar (four stools, a bookcase with maybe five bottles of liquor on it, three of which are whiskey, a mini-fridge, a dusty old guy, enough smoke to rip a new hole in the ozone...and some ceramic puppy figurines - I kid you not. It's called "The Polo Lounge").

After a heavenly breakfast of eggs, bread (naan meets pita, they fall in love and have a baby, which we ate), wonderful coffee, orange juice, fig jam and spready cheese, we explored downtown Cairo a bit, taking in lots of Belle Epoque architecture along the way. I'm pretty sure "Belle Epoque" is French for "19th century buildings put up by imperialist bastards".

We then took the Metro to Coptic Cairo, an enclosed area that is/was the stronghold of Cairo's indigenous Christians. We chose this over the museum, mosques and Pyramids because, being jetlagged, we just didn't want to deal with the tourist hassle of the other places. It was a good choice; only one person asked us for baksheesh and everyone else was very friendly. At the Hanging Church, a free church guide explained a lot for us (we donated to the charity box afterwards), the tourism police were helpful, and domestic tourists enjoyed chatting with us. The expensive Coptic Museum was also, frankly, amazing. I'm happy I took in something more digestible than the Big Mama Museum today.

The most amazing part about Coptic Cairo - beyond the mashrabiyya windows and ornately carved ceilings, was seeing the fusion of Pagan beliefs and Christian ones in their art and mythos. Sure, most of their stone and textilework looked strictly Byzantine, but then you'd come across Dionysus holding a cross, or Aphrodite with an ankh, inset with a "Jesus Fish" - proof that old beliefs don't die immediately in the face of change. They're syncretized, maybe they become a part of folklore, maybe they die slowly, but they never fall under the sword. Cultures blend into one another, they change; they may rise by force but they rarely disappear the same way.

All in all, I like Cairo. I like it a lot. Sure, it's polluted but it's fairly safe and friendly and so far, low-hassle. I also had the most amazing babaghanouj since my great grandma used to make it, and that is truly a priceless thing.

1 comment:

M.Kate said...

I love travel and culture blogs, if you dont mind I'll link yours to mine. tks for sharing ;D