The more you get to know a place, the more you get to learn its many quirks. As a city I only held pigeonholed ideas about – think camels, mummy’s and sexual harassment (*cue dry laughter*) – Cairo was just waiting to surprise me.
Road lanes? What road lanes?
The very first thing I discovered was that Egyptians have absolutely no concept of road lanes (or road rules, for that matter).
When I was picked up from the airport at 2am and driven across the city to Giza, I genuinely feared for my life. People were treating the highway like they would Gran Turismo, and the blatant disregard for the law – and common sense – was mind-blowing. If you’re not quite grasping the sheer terror of driving amongst people like this, bear in mind that highways in Cairo can have up to eight lanes. And a donkey or two.
Pass the mango
But the embarrassing truth is that, prior to Egypt, I had never eaten a fresh mango on its own. I know, I know. Such the traveller. I’ve only ever had mango if it was in the form of a smoothie or dollop of sorbet. Even in Southeast Asia, I didn’t think to buy some from one of the countless street food stalls.
On my very first day in Cairo, I tried a real mango. Woah. It was like all of the taste palates on my tongue had just been reborn. It was so juicy, so sweet… I don’t think I can ever return to preserved, tinned mango every again. It turns out that Egypt is actually known for it’s mangoes, which – according to Fruit Link Co. – are “a tropical delicacy with no equal”.
If you’re a mango fanatic like me, make sure you visit Egypt during mango season (July to November).
The City of Unfinished Buildings
Cairo may be known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, but perhaps a more appropriate nickname is the City of Unfinished Buildings.
One of the things I noticed every time I drove into the centre was the myriad of unfinished apartment buildings. I’m not just talking about one or two of these, either. There were long stretches where I couldn’t spot a single completed building. From a practical point of view, they’re unsafe. From an aesthetic point of view, they’re just plain ugly.
When I inquired into the reasoning behind this, I was informed that there exists something of a legal loophole in that owners in Cairo do not have to pay taxes until a building is structurally finished. Given this, there is little motivation to achieve completion.
If the nickname of the City of Unfinished Buildings doesn’t catch on, then maybe the City of a Thousand Billboards will.
Cruising down the 26th of July Corridor, you are treated to advertisement after advertisement. Airbrushed models smile down on you with their photoshopped, white smiles, marketing everything from Coca Cola to Vodafone to KFC. The oddity? None of the female models are veiled.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be strange if it weren’t for the fact that up to 80% of Egyptian women are believed to wear headscarves. That’s no minority. Presuming that these advertisements are targeting Egyptian citizens, this lack of representation seems a little unusual.
Paris along the Nile
When I first heard this next fact, I burst out laughing. Did you know that Cairo was architecturally modelled after Paris?
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Downtown Cairo was transformed into what was at the time called the ‘Paris of the East’. This was because the then-ruler was raised in France and wanted Egypt’s capital to reflect European modernity. This meant that the Downtown area was to be characterised by linear, gridded streets, geometric harmony, and reflect Parisian architecture.
Let there be light… please 🙏
If the lack of consideration for road lanes doesn’t already make driving a near-death experience for you, then the lack of street lamps will. There are so many stretches of highway where there is just no lighting. When you’re zooming along at 100km/h with half of Cairo on your tail, that’s the last thing you want.
I have no idea how you would navigate anywhere if it weren’t for the head and tail lights of surrounding cars – and even then, it’s near impossible to spot potholes or barriers that suddenly jump up out of the concrete. I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents. But on that note…
If you travel to Cairo, you will probably see a dead body.
I’m not talking about roadkill. I wish I was talking about roadkill. Rather, I’m referring to the 12,000 human lives that are lost due to crashes every year in this country.
I remember driving down one of the more remote highways and passing an ambulance. Upon further inspection, I realised that two paramedics were tending to an unmoving body that had been flung from an also unmoving motorcycle. I didn’t have to look too closely to fathom their fate.
It was the juxtaposition between how Egypt deals with this sort of thing compared to the response from my home country of New Zealand that really shocked me. Back home, a crash – even one that leaves no fatalities – will halt traffic, block roads and make national news. Here, it was as though nothing had even happened. If I hadn’t had my eyes peeled, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have even noticed it.
Death has been normalised.
On a lighter note, one thing that pleasantly surprised me about Cairo was the amount of greenery present. For a desert city, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Cruising down the Nile along Downtown’s Promenade especially draws attention to this welcome inhabitance of vegetation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to temporarily forget that I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Coming from a small town in an environmentally-friendly country, air pollution had always been something of an abstract problem. But for Cairo – the city ranked as having the worst air pollution in the world – this is an unavoidable issue.
The effect this has on the landscape is striking. Standing beneath the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel and beholding Cairo’s skyline gave me the impression that I was looking over a civilisation on some distant planet. The horizon is a thick gray as a consequence of the fumes. As it ascends, the sky gradually fades into a dull blue. There are no clouds. There is no sun. There is only the haze.
Egypt is very… Egyptian
What amused me the most about Egypt was just how Egyptian it is.
If that sounds to you like an obvious statement, then allow me to elaborate. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, there are certain icons of Egypt that thoroughly tie into the stereotypes and conventions that the tourism industry thrives off. You know what I’m talking about.
But when I arrived, I didn’t actually expect these cultural symbols to manifest in absolutely everything. Everywhere you look is Egyptian iconography. Sphinx Bakery, Pyramid Gardens, Pharaoh Towers… walking in Cairo is like stepping into a three-dimensional postcard. I found it entertaining, to say the least.
I don’t intend for this blog post to deter anyone from visiting Cairo. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all these little quirks – good and bad – are instrumental in the formation of it’s character.
I highly recommend that you read about my experience at the Great Pyramids of Giza. Furthermore, if you want to learn about what it’s like to be a ginger in Egypt, then this post might be your cup of tea ☕
Last but not least, stay tuned for my Egypt vlog that is currently in the works! Show some love and subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss out on any exciting updates.
All photographs courtesy of the talented photographers at Unsplash