As a rule of thumb, objects on a hill always look closer than they really are…
An honest mistake I believe even the ancient crusaders committed as they moved en masse to Cairo’s Citadel. This mammoth fort perched on a limestone spur looms and laughs at you as you trundle towards it. Natalie, my travel companion, stopped laughing 30 minutes ago… about the same time I nervously checked my map for reassurance that we weren’t headed for Syria instead.
I was cocksure we were headed in the right direction but Natalie’s increasingly dark expressions made me fear for my kebabs. So I weighed the options and decided to ask for directions. The Egyptian gentleman I approached was half dozing when I asked, but shot up and started gesticulating like he’d been doing it for a good minute before we noticed. He seemed confident enough and I gained points for doing the most unmany thing of asking for directions… that in itself lightened Natalie’s expression and shifted all navigational blame onto this man.
For a stocky man, Mahmoud was a walking piston. He didn’t want to just point us in the right direction; he looked like he was going to bring us there. As he sifted through the crowd I asked what he did for a living. After a pantomime of him clutching a rifle and what seemed like getting shot I gathered Mahmoud was a medically discharged military man. My interpretation proved accurate when he lifted his shirt to show me a scar that ran from his abdomen to crotch.
Natalie, who was about two paces behind us saw the topic of our conversation just when Mahmoud regained his modesty. By then I knew I’d earned enough points to force-march her up the Citadel with no complaints. With gestured thanks, we left Mahmoud to his blissful retirement and legged it up to the Citadel. He did, after all, point us in the right direction.
The Citadel’s genesis was not militant at all. Before it became an imposing fortress, it was the “Dome of the Wind”, a hilltop pavilion created at the governor’s behest in 810 AD. Immured by three-meter thick walls is the Mohammed Ali mosque, the fortress’ holy core. Dominating the southern enclosure, the Mohammed Ali Mosque is refulgent with its arcaded courtyard with a view of the city and the Pyramids in Giza.
Egypt’s bustle merely murmurs from atop the Citadel but what was to shout about was pointing out how far we had walked from the hotel. Natalie, to my chagrin, failed to share the accomplishment of our triumphant march. Instead she mumbled something about a taxi.
Having had my ‘pathfinder’ status ripped off, Natalie took my map away and raised her Singapore Girl hand to flag a taxi. Again she murmured something like “at least we’ll get there today” though she was mid-sentence when a man approached her. Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, he looked as incongruent dress-wise as we did. And this time he didn’t need to show us any flesh wounds because he spoke brilliant English.
“Hello, where are you going?” asked the man.
“The City Walls,” replied Natalie.
“My name is Hassan. The city walls are quite nearby… walking distance.” Words that probably made Natalie want to leap into traffic.
So we were on our way again. Hassan set a mercurial pace through Cairo’s Byzantine streets being able to read the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic. We were quite the opposite – surging and stopping as we tried to keep up with our guide. All we had for navigational aid was his gleaming balding head as it bobbed through the streets.
We stopped at the entrance of what seemed like the only mosque without tourists milling about. In a handshake that seemed to disguise some Egyptian Pounds, the mosque attendant nodded and allowed us to enter. While we padded up one of the mosques’ minarets it got exceedingly darker with the smell of cold dust tempting a sneeze. “Ok, walk ten steps and then turn left,” instructed Hassan.
By now it was pitch black and lucid thoughts of getting mugged screamed through my mind. But as Hassan’s voice trailed off into the distance we had no choice but to follow suit. Had we been disobedient, the eleventh step would have led to an ankle-snapping gap in the floor. Hassan explained that we were right on top of the city’s gates, or what was once the slot which an enormous wooden gate slotted into and protected the city from the marauding hordes. It was then that I figured Hassan for a freelance tour guide who picked up bedraggled tourists.
I mean only seasoned tour guides and former pyramid architects know dark cramped spaces by foot count and the latter profession were all buried with the pyramids. My suspicions were quashed when Hassan declined to be reimbursed for his Tutankhamun adventure. But we insisted he accept our tip along with a round of Egyptian chai and a strawberry flavoured hookah.
Cairo’s paranoid past can’t be seen in its modern semblance. As the only Asians milling through Egyptian traffic we were treated with a genuine interest.
“Are you Japanese?” was the common refrain, and after the fourth explanation of Singapore’s geographical location I capitulated, nodded my head Japanese-style and blurted “Hyke, all Nippon.”
Green means Go?
Cairo’s traffic is based on a system of water through pebbles. Lane markings are mere suggestions. Pedestrians slot and swerve in between thousands of old Fiats beeping their horns not in malice but for recognition. Bus stops, like lane markings, are treated with the same casual recognition. Passengers board and alight buses as it trundles along the streets. An old lady with a toddler managed with some heft and puff to heave her toddler to the bus conductor and hoisted herself into the moving vehicle… all this while cars brushed by her. For the Singaporean schooled in looking left, right, and left again this was advanced Frogger, which our education system didn’t prepare us for.
Despite the higgledy-piggledy of Cairo’s traffic, there is something lacking. Amidst all the beeping cars, swerving pedestrians, and horse drawn carriages jammed onto the roads, there is no animosity amongst road users. Horns were beeped in tandem with the motorist’s speed. This made the half-hour ride to the Pyramids of Giza one long beep.
Having grown accustomed to candid questions of our country of origin by the locals, we weren’t prepared for the pyramids. Gone was the genial “hello, are you Japanese?” At the pyramids, the touts stand eight-feet tall blasting their incessant requests from atop their camels. Natalie and I realized the futility of trying to out-walk a tout on a camel as he looms and thumps after you like you insulted his lineage.
Camels are also very surefooted when you try to side step them. After a rather spirited game of Tetris, it dawned on us that the best way to lose the touts is to pace ourselves into a pack of school children, smile and move amongst them like the gawky kid in class. This little buffer of headscarves will keep the touts at bay while you exchange pleasantries with the kids.
The pyramids of Giza – next to the Eiffel Tower – is easily the most touristy location on the planet. But like most guidebooks will tell you, it will never fail to impress even the most jaded traveler. This triumvirate of engineering gains lustre as dusk falls, glowing in falling light. You only have a small window of time to appreciate these glowing funeral pyres before the Giza light show stabs the night. The light show is a blast of laser light that depicts the history of the pyramids in technicolour. For some it was watching history in 3D but for us it was a cue to leave.
Like one night stands, the touts of Giza don’t even look in your direction when you’re leaving the pyramids. By contrast, the taxi drivers at the entrances eye you with forlorn lust. After one last affirmation of our Japanese lineage to an ebullient cab driver, our taxi’s beep melded with a thousand other beeping horns and we were back in the City of a thousand minarets…and about four million car horns.