Monday, 11 August 2008

Grit's travel tips for a day out in Cairo

1. Learn Arabic. You can do this at home, alone, which is probably best, because you need to choke out shkyrakyrakshryakakak-aka-aka-ak without spitting at anyone. Being alone also has the added advantage that there is no-one around to tell you your aka-aka-ak has all gone wrong, when it sounds perfectly good to me.

Grit has three Arabic words at her disposal now, none of which have been in any way useful, except to cause Dig embarrassment. I try a modest shukran to the hotel driver, which I hope seems polite and respectful. I get a slight puzzled expression in return. I probably called him old goat or offered my body for five dollars. I promise myself I will borrow the Teach Yourself Arabic audio course again from the library. I think am stressing it all wrong.

2. Buy the services of a guide to do the meet and greet and get you to the hotel. Seriously. Cairo is a place where a meet and greet got us to the hotel in 40 minutes instead of our usual 5 hours and an argument with a taxi driver where he wins. And would we have found that hotel in that web of streets, elevated on a fifth floor above the thousands of shops selling everything from Singer sewing machine parts, beads and bread, to shoes, clay pots and fan belts? All on a threading alleyway off the Talaat Harb? I don't think so. This hotel doesn't even have a street level sign. It is however, wonderful*.

3. Smile. This is very nice. It doesn't seem to make any difference to anything, but everyone smiles back and that is very nice too. Grit smiles a lot. The people we meet in Egypt are very friendly and constantly just want us to step inside their shop to take a business card. I can honestly say I smiled a lot in the perfume shop. Dig didn't smile at all. Grumpy Dig! And look! The Egyptians are so lovely I am even smiling while handing over a large sum of money for a bottle of flower essence and such lovely smile-inducing perfume bottles!

4. Wear shoes that cover your feet. And you can see why.

5. Take a sun hat. And do not go out in the midday sun. Otherwise you get heatstroke. And this is how it happens.

At about midday and after two hours walking through Cairo you might whimper 'I feel a bit hot'. Dig of course will take no notice of such feminine vapours. He will continue to stride about in a manly way like Bulldog Drummond, shouting in a commanding voice, 'Next we need to find the spice market!' He then proceeds to get hopelessly lost in the tangle of market streets up old Cairo, and Grit starts swearing blind she just saw that old man again sitting on the car tyres by the abattoir because he is looking at her intently, following her with his eyes, and is also frowning in bemusement. This is a look I've seen before on the faces of people who are experiencing a procession of matching triplets wearing similar dresses and identical hairstyles. So now I know we've walked past him three different ways in the last half hour.

With heatstroke, you might feel your body take a drastic turn for the worse at about 3pm when suddenly you feel you are no longer sweating. The effect on Grit is alarming. She starts running around in circles shouting 'I'm not sweating! I'M NOT SWEATING! I must have shade!'

Sprinting past a Coca cola seller who has large blocks of broken ice in baskets by the heavy traffic, Grit then screeches to a halt and grabs one of these ice blocks under the startled gaze of the street seller who probably thinks this strange European is trying to half-inch his can of Coke. She then proceeds to slap that ice straight to her face. Rubbing the ice block methodically around her face, over her head, round her neck and down her front she then intones That feels good, that feels good, before Dig drags her off to stand under a fan in a bag shop. Here I continue rubbing the ice block over my entire body because the alternative is a coma. When I get to the last palm-size bit, I shove it into the left cup of my bra, reasoning this is nearest cup to my heart and I have to stop the cardiac arrest. Fortunately I seem to get away with this bizarre exhibition, which says something about the behaviour the gentle folk of Cairo expect from their foreign visitors.

6. Locate the free water. All around Cairo there are drums of water, provided free for drinking. Alongside these drums will be a couple of plastic cups. The idea is that you help yourself to water, return the cup and move on, refreshed.

Well, obviously, do not drink the water because as a soft-bellied, non-Cairoan, you will die. What you do is push in front of everyone else in the queue for the free water, fill your cup and throw it at yourself, head first, working the entire way down to the feet. This is mildy embarrassing for Dig, but I say the ice was only a partial solution because have you thought how you are going to get my stiff dead body down from the fifth floor? I have now given this serious thought and there is no way they can do it without propping me up in the lift or lowering me out the window on a rope. In preference to that I am going to shower. Now. Admittedly this looks a bit like Grit trying to import the wet T-shirt competition inappropriately into a land where the ladies mostly wear black bags and I could possibly be arrested, but like I said, this is an emergency.

7. Get a room with air con. I apologise to the environment, but I need to bring my body temperature down now about fifteen degrees. Remember only a few hours ago, in the market near the abattoir, that fabric conditioner looked like a viable, thirst-quenching, cocktail.

8. Carry around an assortment of currency. This is great. I love this about travel. Dig carries around US dollars, Euro, UK sterling, plus assortments from Aus, China, and today, Egypt. Because you never know. There might just be a man who owns a perfume shop round the next corner.

9. Obsessively keep all small change, probably where Dig keeps his. Down his underpants. Because when you have a fifty pound note and the bottle of water you are dribbling over costs one pound fifty the street trader will laugh in your face and hold up his fingers at your nose. Then you'd better come up with one pound fifty or you are going to die. Either that or you have to wrestle him to the ground and rob him, or just hand over the entire fifty pound note and walk away holding that luxurious bottle of ice cool drinking water! And now you can bet Grit is more sorry than she ever thought possible that she gave the fifty piastres to the children as play money.

10. Gather local maps of Cairo because the Lonely Planet maps are crap. On the third trip past the abattoir Dig is all but kicking the Lonely Planet into the gutter. Apparently the map has no landmarks! The scale is wrong! The streets are not listed! Dig, I say, some of these streets are the width of a line of wool, of course they are not going to be on the map. Give it here. I need to put it on my head to get some shade.

11. Never believe anything you are told by anyone. We say to a passer by, 'Hey! Thanks for the offer of a business card and we will be back tomorrow, but could you just tell us where is the Restaurant Taboula?' And he will shrug his shoulders like 'Are you foolish? Everyone knows where that place is! It is first right!' And then you will discover it is nowhere near the first right, it is several blocks away. You will wander round for the next hour until you are late for your reservation and they have given your table to a man who can suck smoke through something that looks like a candlestick.

12. Get religion before you cross the road. You will need a God on your side.

Now I don't know about you but I was brought up to believe the safe way to cross the road was to wait for a gap in the traffic, look both ways and step cautiously across. NO. That is WRONG. The way to cross the road is to step out into MOVING TRAFFIC and those vehicles will FLOW ROUND YOU. Dig says Look! They are crossing the road by stepping off the kerb into a stream of traffic going at 40mph! Why can't we? He says just use the locals as human shields. No Dig NO. Because Dig, WE ARE GOING TO DIE. And then let's see you explain that to the children.

13. Do not take a photograph in the Cairo Museum. Not under any circumstances. Not even if you are talked into it by Dig, who wants to see if you can get away with it. You can't. You will be caught by a guard and marched into a corner where your phone is taken off you while you make pathetic grovelly noises and say it was all his fault. Then with a mean look that very severe guard will hand your phone back to you and somehow contrive to leave his palm open to indicate that a fifty pound note will do nicely, thank you very much. But then you scarper. Because where I come from matey, bribing a policeman is a pretty big deal, and a much bigger crime than taking a photograph in the Cairo Museum.

14. This is not so much of a suggestion, more of a plea, particularly to the ladeez. And I get so worked up about this subject I could write a book about it. Please cover yourselves up if you are in a land where the women do not show their backsides, bra straps, burnt wobbly bits at the tops of their thighs, naked backs down to buttock level, near naked breasts and underarms. Please show modesty. (Smearing ice over your entire body in a handbag shop is, of course, an exception.)

* The Talisman, Hotel de charme, 39 Talaat Harb Street.


Lynn said...

I loved this and laughed soooo much.Classic Grit.
The image with the ice and the bag shop will keep me giggling for ages;-))
Enjoy the rest of your trip xx

Kelly Jene said...

So funny. And duly noted as Cairo is on our list of places to visit "someday".

Please stay cool!

Awesome pics!

sharon said...

Wonderful! Only you could go into meltdown in such a classy way. Too, too funny! I'm sure the Egyptians will have an obligatory wet t-shirt contest for mad European ladies as a daily feature in the marketplace any day now. Did you not remember Noel Coward's song re Mad Dogs etc? Actually I'm dead jealous about the markets, I love all that beautiful glass and I bet there were fabrics and beads and papers and THINGS that are essential to my well-being at really silly prices. Oh well, maybe I have the right numbers in this week's lottery ticket ;-)

Samurai Beetle said...

Love the stories of your travels! Makes me feel like I am there with you.

Millennium Housewife said...

Did anyone video the ice rubbing incident? You could make a packet. MH

Potty Mummy said...

So can we assume you were NOT wearing your beach volleyball ensemble in Cairo?

OvaGirl said...

Oh sweet mother of god. you are a funny funny funny woman.

Mud in the City said...

Truly hilarious - thank you! Hope you've cooled down by now and that your blogging absence isn't hospital induced...

Em said...

Thats how they cross the street in Istanbul too. Just trust in something, and walk. Crazy.

But look, you're in Cairo, with no triplets!!! I was in Finland the other day with no twins, and it was bliss, even though it was only for one night, and all we saw of Helsinki was a taxi from airport to place, and place to airport. But we flew out Business and had FREE FOOD! And little lamps next to chairs that reclined, and as many little pastries as you could possibly eat for breakfast.

Enjoy the rest of your stay.