On arrival at Cairo International Airport, we were excited - and a little nervous
12.11.2007 - 12.11.2007 20 °C
We arrived in Cairo at sunset. My first view of the city was exhilirating – I opened the flap on my plane window and saw a golden sun setting over the Nile. The rays reflected in the river, transforming it into a shimmering, golden serpent. It was a promising start. When we got off at the airport we had to go through the rigmarole of getting our visas although, to be fair, this was a fairly straightforward procedure. First you have to line up at the bank, located near customs, where you buy a slightly-larger-than-business-card sized piece of paper called VISA - appropriately enough. Then you join the border control queue where the VISA is stuck into your passport in double quick time. We collected our baggage and tried to hook up with an English lady who was also going to the Oasis so we could save on taxi costs but we then saw a man holding up a name-board with our names on it.
Before we left the UK we had e-mailed the Oasis Hotel, asking if they could arrange a taxi for us. We were told it would cost US$35 (E£175). Our driver, standing at the airport with a name-board, was called Said. Plucky, squat and bursting with backslapping bonhomie, he motioned us over. We were so relieved to have found a lifeline so soon after disembarking we immediately propositioned him about being our driver for the duration of the holiday. Said was only too happy to accept this offer which, in retrospect, must have seemed for him like manna from heaven.
The drive from the airport was fascinating – the infrastructure was good, there were plenty of towering hotels and apartment blocks and every now and then we glimpsed a billboard displaying the face of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president since October 1981. Although he has been democratically elected in successive polls, the validity of some of the results has been questioned. But the West seems only too pleased a moderate man is in charge of such a strategically important Muslim country.
The airport is north-east of the city centre and the suburb through which you pass on your way into Cairo is a leafy, wealthy looking place called Heliopolis. Giza, on the other hand, is south-west of the centre so getting there requires going through central Cairo and crossing the Nile.
It was getting dark as we passed through Cairo, and I asked Said about the location of the Nile. By way of reply, he suddenly pulled up next to the kerb on a bridge and told us to get out and feel the fresh river breeze. Callan and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. We had had a long, tiring day and just wanted to check in to the Oasis as quickly as possible. We certainly hadn’t expected this nocturnal riverside excursion. Said lit up a Marlboro and explained that in summer hordes of people line the bridges over the Nile to escape the stifling heat. We thanked him but reminded him we wanted to get to the hotel ASAP.
Further on, Said started to tell us about his friends who sell perfume and papyrus, and how it wouldn't take long for us to visit them, if we wanted to. We didn't want to. My heart sank - I'd read before arriving in Cairo that some taxi drivers keep it strictly professional without trying to oblige you to buy from their friends while others can be annoying in their insistence. Said was clearly a member of the latter group and, as it was to turn out, fending off his offers became increasingly tiring.
As we drove on towards Giza, the infrastructure deteriorated dramatically. Many of the roads were unpaved, litter clogged the streets as well as a nearby canal and stray dogs and even the odd egret picked through the rubbish. At one point as the car came to a standstill in a traffic jam beggars and lime sellers knocked repeatedly on the car window. There were no traffic lanes and cars, trucks, bicycles, taxis and motorcycles weave around as it pleases them (see image immediately below). Every now and then a donkey cart or camel is thrown in for good measure.
The miracle is that despite the apparent chaos we never saw a collision, not even a scrape (at least not until the final day when, on our way back to the airport, a car and a bus seemed to be involved in a very minor collision - more on that later). We noticed Said hooted at almost every car he passed, and almost everything he said was punctuated by a touch of his hooter, almost as if it was a full stop. He explained this habit was proudly celebrated as 'Egyptian music'. In the crush of traffic we saw several tiny black-and-white taxis which, Said said, were a cheap and uninsured option.
Armed police were everywhere, acting as traffic lights and guiding the cars. They must have the most stressful job in Cairo!
The scenes were so surreal I felt as though I'd been transported back in time. One image, in particular, looked as if it had been lifted straight out of the Old Testament. Four or five young men dressed in robes and caps, were squatting in a circle on a street corner, chatting amiably while traffic armageddon erupted around them. Across the canal, roosting in a tree, were several white egrets. They looked totally unfazed by the noise - an island of tranquility in a sea of madness.
The cacophony of traffic contrasted so completely with the orderly, sober driving in England that for a short while we were slightly dazed by it all. We at one point glimpsed the side of one of the pyramids, which was being lit up as part of the nightly Sound & Light Shows held at Giza.
Said finally dropped us off at the hotel and agreed to meet the next morning at 7.45am to take us to the Pyramids of Giza, located a few minutes’ drive from the hotel. We checked in and almost immediately a porter called Mohamed appeared and loaded our suitcases onto a trolley. Once you've passed through the lobby but before you get to the bungalows is an entertainment, at the heart of which is a large pool with a small connecting bridge over it. There is a disco, a poolside restaurant and, on the other side of the pool, a bar. An Italian restaurant takes up an upper deck. The pool has a central fountain which changes colour according to the lights.
We were led past this area and on to our room, which is more of a bungalow, and tipped Mohamed for his efforts. Our first impressions of the Oasis were good; Callan even said later that it is the best hotel we’d stayed in. Most of the rooms are on the ground floor and even though I have never been to India, I imagine it looks something like this. Outside our room, towering palm trees lined the pedestrian paths and the sound of hooters eventually faded to silence. When contrasted with some of the scenes of abject poverty outside, the hotel is indeed an 'oasis'.
Our room consisted of two large double beds, a small fridge, a desk and a spacious bathroom, all ideal for our needs. There was also a TV with Euro News and CNN.
We decided to order in: I ordered a margerita pizza, a Stella beer (authentic Egyptian, apparently) and a cappuccino and Callan ordered a vegeterian pizza and cappuccino. Added onto the cost were a room service charge, a sales tax and 'city tax' of 2%. A young guy called Nasr arrived half an hour later with our dinner. We tipped him as appropriate, then less than an hour later he was back, brandishing a plate of salted peanuts, which he said was a ‘gift’ for us. But there’s no such thing as a free meal, particularly in Egypt, and Nasr got his second tip.
We slept fairly well given it was our first night away from home; perhaps it was just exhaustion from a long day of travel.