By the time I cleared customs in Cairo it was 2:00 AM.
I bought my entry visa at a currency exchange place that had a black and white hand printed sign that said “Visa $25 USD”. I could tell that this is about how professional things are going to get here.
After dodging several men trying to offer me a taxi. I found my guy holding up a sign that read: “Chris Backley, Dvor Hostel.” Knowing it would be a barrage of negotiations in a country like Egypt, I opted to pay for the service to my hostel.
I arrived at 2:30 AM and was asleep by 3:00 AM. Seeing as my body had not slept horizontal for many hours I was asleep until noon only to awake once 4:00 AM by the chanting call to prayer that occurs on speakers throughout the day through the city.
Around 2:00 PM I wandered out for food and to orient myself to the city. About 50 feet from my hostel a man beelined it for me waving and asking if I spoke English.
So it begins…
He asked me where I was from and I told him, “Steve from Wisconsin.” and he continued to walk down the street with me. Experiencing this same salesmanship in Morocco and Istanbul, I knew what I was in for. I saw the place that I wanted to eat and figured we could use each other, so we went inside and with his help I ordered a few sandwiches. I’m not sure I could have navigated that place without him. I would have stood there for a few minutes studying the menu and watched other patrons and where they paid and picked up their food.
With three pita sandwiches of fuul, tamiya, and falafel, we walked over to Tahir Square and sat down in the shade and I kept giving him fake information partially grateful for someone to talk to.
Giza. That’s what he’s selling. He wanted to take me to Giza for probably a travel scam which even if I fell for, would probably only result in me paying another $30 extra with the favorable exchange rate.
After a few more nos I shook him off and started to walk towards the Nile.
I looked at the river and a teenager came up to me and told me it would be safer to cross underneath the bridge. I thanked him and moved on.
Fifty feet later another man told me the same advice saying there was a protest near Cairo University and I should avoid that area. He offered to show me the safer way and we walked over to go underneath the bridge. Enzo asked if I he could give me a business card for his shop and that’s how I got suckered into his store.
I know about these pitches but have never been a part of them so I entertained it for a few minutes.
He sat me down and his sister brought me some tea. “She is to be getting married tomorrow and you should come to the wedding.” I wasn’t sure what he was selling yet until he brought out the papyrus.
His sister came over and painted “Steve from Wisconsin” in Arabic on one of the paintings in an attempt to get me to buy it. A few nos later I politely walked out and along the Nile River.
It was now clear that my saavy traveler game was rusty so I decided to change my demeanor to “fuck off” mode that I frequently use when I’m walking downtown LA late at night.
I navigated my way back to my hostel stopping in alleys and back roads to take photos. The locals looked at me with curiosity, but I wasn’t bothered again.
After a nap at my hostel, I decided to scout out a place for dinner. A few days prior a friend at my gym recommended a restaurant called Abu Al Sid. As a food snob, I loved this and promised to go.
I asked the front desk how much a taxi would cost knowing I would have to negotiate before getting inside and when he found out where I was going he lit up. “Ah, this place is very good.” He wrote down the directions in Arabic and a few English words on a piece of paper to give to a taxi driver.
The first taxi I saw I gave him the paper. He had no idea what it meant. He asked three people passing by and I’m pretty sure one of them looked at me and shook his head no as in “don’t get in the taxi.”
When he started going right instead of left (towards the Nile) I realized he had no idea where he was going. I didn’t feel in danger so went with it and he dropped me off. Well, it was certainly the right street but I was nowhere near it. I looked at the paper and realized there was no address on the directions. This was confirmed when I asked 4 other taxi drivers and they shrugged their shoulders in the negative. Fuck. I was walking around for an hour now enjoying the streets of vibrant Cairo but getting hungry and was thinking of settling for shwarma and heading back.
I knew it was near a major American brand hotel though, so if I could just see it and find the Nile then I could easily ask the concierge. After walking down a street I probably shouldn’t have been walking on, I could see a Hilton and a Marriot tower. My street was pointed toward the Marriot so I kept going and then started walking on the bridge over the Nile. By this point I had become an expert at crossing 6 lanes of traffic with zero fucks given like everyone else in the city.
Inside the hotel I found a beautiful Egyptian girl at the concierge and I told her I was lost and looking for Abu El Sid.
HER: “Do you have a reservation?”
ME: “No, do I need one? It’s just me.”
HER: “Let me call them.”
No one picked up. The other girl at the concierge tried calling and they started chatting in Arabic and giggling at me. I probably looked ridiculous at this point.
HER: “How do you know of this place?”
ME: “A friend.” (afraid I pronounced it incorrectly and wanted to make sure she was sending me to the right place). “It’s popular right?”
HER: “Yes. With Egyptians.”
Even better. She gave me a map and it happened to be right across the street. I thanked her and walked away cursing myself for not asking Eman to come with me.
I recognized a photo of the exterior from Google images and pushed open the giant Arabian doors and walked up to the steps to exactly what I needed and what I wanted from Cairo.
Old furniture and darkened lanterns framed a cozy restaurant where people were enjoying tea, food, and sheesha. If Hollywood wanted to do a film about Cairo, this is where they would film it. The restaurant was probably 80% Egyptians and 20% tourists. Near me was an older man with shorts and white socks and across the way to my left was an American couple and their guide. I decided to watch the four businessmen across from me. They wordlessly dug into various foods only chatting in between courses. Very much family style, they reached over each other and just dug a fork in whatever they could reach.
I ordered an Egyptian beer called Stella, stuffed vine leaves with yogurt and mint sauce, and a mixed grill. The mixed grill had different meats from chicken to lamb to pigeon (a local favorite). How was the pigeon? It was coo.
Now satiated with pigeon and beer, I decided I would enjoy a walk back. Since I knew where the Nile was I could easily get my bearings.
30 minutes later I was back at my hostel. That was easy. Not bad for Steve from Wisconsin.