There was something exciting and adventurous about traveling to Cairo. The world watched Egypt’s Arab Spring live from Tahrir Square as the revolution unfolded. A revolution that was successful in ousting President Mubarak. But the honeymoon is over and Egyptians grow more frustrated each day with President Morsi.
There’s exciting and adventurous and there’s ‘what have I got myself into?’. My flight from Istanbul was less than half full and I was the only Western tourist on board. As we taxied to our arrival gate, the airport was far less busy than I had expected and our arrival terminal was nearly empty.
I had considered prearranging an airport transfer to the Ramses Hilton. There’s a great comfort in arriving in a strange land with a sign being held up at the airport with your name on it. But no, just as I decided it would be ‘exciting and adventurous’ to get my Indian tourist visa while in Australia, I thought I would organize a drive on arrival. How difficult could it be? I’ve been travelling all over the world for 25 years. I can handle this.
I was prepared for the taxi touts. My plan was to ignore them and head right to the Cairo Airport Shuttle which would whisk me downtown. Being the fourth person off my flight – and what appeared to be the only flight landing at this particular time – I was fresh meat for every hungry Egyptian driver. I quickly resorted to my default safety zone – my Australian cell phone. I ‘talked to my brother who was going to pick me up a the airport’, while I sussed out the situation, dodging eager Egyptians, searching for the shuttle counter which the airport website said would be evident.
I could only talk to my non-residing brother for so long before I had to address the gaggle of goons that was following me around. I leaned against this wall or that post saying things like, “So, how long do you think you will be?” or, “How’s the traffic?” as my ambulatory audience peppered me with propositions, rates, and options at every break in the fake phone call.
I could have just said ‘yes’ to the first one. I knew what a good rate was and one thing I don’t mind paying for (or overpaying) is getting to where I want to go hassle free. However, this hassle was getting out of hand and for the first time in my four month trip I froze. How could I say yes to one? How could I pick? Please, someone save me! I then spotted the official tourist desk with signs that said ‘Hotels’ and ‘Limousines’. A well-dressed man with an official looking I.D. badge rescued me from my harasers. I wrapped up my phone call with my brother – “OK, so yeah, sounds like you are stuck in traffic, I’ll meet you at the hotel in an hour”, made direct eye contact with the official limousine guy and asked, “Bikkam?”(how much?).
At this point, I had only two drivers following me around, but my conversation with the official guy created a tense situation with shouting and flashing of I.D.s, prices coming down, and accusations that the taxi drivers were not safe and trustworthy, counter accusations, and more shouting ensued. I grabbed the official guy by the arm and said “Yella!” (let’s go) and headed for the limousine counter where prices were negotiated, chits signed, and introductions made to my driver.
The first part of the taxi ride went quickly, but as we approached the congested downtown we inched along. I scanned the busy sidewalks searching to see someone who looked like a tourist. Maybe that was one there. Or maybe not.
As we drove up to the Cairo Ramses Hilton, the security guards moved the barricade so the taxi could drive in. I passed through the metal detector at the hotel entrance, and checked in.
I opened my balcony door to the cacophony that is Cairo. As I scanned the street below I made a plan for my first outing tomorrow morning – Tahrir Square.
It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves. – Andre Gide