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March/2006 * 03/29/06


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A Day of Discovery in Cairo
By Steve McLean

CAIRO, EGYPT – I set off from my hotel in Dokki on the west side of the Nile River and, after walking up a main shopping thoroughfare and politely declining a few invitations into papyrus shops, I veer off the trendy tourist trail to explore Medieval Cairo.

One street is dedicated to selling or repairing old tires, another has stores full of electronic equipment, while a third is dominated by carpenters. But interspersed among all of these businesses are bare-bones sidewalk cafés with an exclusively male clientele sitting at wobbly tables and smoking sheesha – an aromatic combination of charcoal, molasses, tobacco and fruit flavouring -- from giant water pipes.

Even with a map, I’m lost within minutes as I make a few more twists and turns through smaller back streets that have no signs. While I could see the imposing Citadel in the distance at the beginning of my journey, the crumbling apartments -- shared by huge extended families and more than a few goats -- that line the narrow alleys have now blocked it from my sight.

I come to an old cemetery and, while I’ve become used to stray dogs and the occasional chicken wandering around, I’m surprised to find people living among the tombs in what’s known as a City of the Dead. But around the next corner, the elevated Citadel and Turkish-influenced Mosque of Mohamed Ali come into spectacular view.

The Citadel has been a stronghold since 1176 and most of Egypt’s rulers called it home for nearly 700 years. Cairo is one of the world’s most polluted cities and you wear sunglasses to keep the dust out of your eyes as much as the hot sun. But even through the smog, the Citadel offers a brilliant vista that enables you to see most of this rapidly expanding city of 18 million. You can even vaguely make out the Great Pyramids of Giza, which now mark the border where the sprawling metropolis has grown to meet the Western Desert.

After descending, I aimlessly make my way through more ancient streets as my feet start to feel the toll of hours of pavement-pounding. Although taxis, buses and mini-buses are everywhere, and cheap, I’d rather take my chances walking than getting into one of the aging vehicles. I can’t believe that I haven’t witnessed an accident yet, as the traffic is frantic with everyone constantly honking, passing and changing lanes. There are very few proper traffic lights and I haven’t spotted a stop sign yet – not that they’d be obeyed, anyway.

There’s a large police presence on the streets, and most of them carry machine guns. It’s disconcerting at first, but you get used to it. Some of the cops smile and say “Hello” or “Welcome to Egypt.” Put at ease by this friendliness, I stop to ask one for directions.

With halting English, a young officer asks me where I’m from. When I tell him I’m Canadian, his eyes widen and he replies, “Ah, Canada Dry.” This happens a couple of more times as I keep on walking. I may not have ever received a proper answer to my query about finding my hotel, but I guess I found out the favourite ginger ale of the local constabulary.

After eventually stumbling into a more modern section of the city and getting my bearings, the afternoon call to prayer is blasting out of loudspeakers from a nearby mosque as I sit down at an Internet café. But the staff at the KFC across the street is oblivious, as a sign in the window claims that it's the first KFC outlet in the world run by the hearing impaired.
Chalk up another learning experience for a day that’s been full of them.


British Airways flies from Vancouver to Cairo via London for approximately $2,300 (including taxes and fees).

A double/twin standard room in the three-star, 102-room Pharaohs Hotel in the Dokki neighbourhood, within walking distance of many of Cairo’s tourist sights, costs $32.90 Canadian per night (which includes a buffet breakfast). Telephone 7610871 in Cairo.

Gecko’s Adventures offers a number of guided tours in Egypt. Visit for details.

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