Almost guaranteed, the overpowering initial impression of Cairo for a first time visitor is one of an overwhelmingly hectic city, quite crowded and polluted, noisy and hot, and with nightmarishly dangerous traffic. If working, traffic lights are a mere suggestion: traffic cops have no chance of regulating traffic, but rather have to wait themselves for a natural break in the flow of traffic. One is completely on one's own when crossing the busy streets where cars unquestionably and relentlessly force their right of way. Even getting into a position to cross a street is easier said than done because access is often obstructed by blockfuls of cars literally parked bumper to bumper. Wondering how one of these cars ever leaves its parking spot? The common understanding is to not pull the hand brake so that the person in charge of the block can push the cars forwards and backwards as required.
Cairo means business. A friendly conversation initiated by someone coming up to you on the street inevitably leads to a perfume shop, a handcraft shop, or a restaurant of his brother, uncle, or very good friend. At times, the hassling can be aggressive, and at times a polite but determined thank you ends the attempt at business.
Cairo, however, grows on you. With time, visitors will find their gems in the chaos. What kind of gems depends largely on the visitor. It may be a beautiful mosque, a sunset on the Nile, or ancient pyramids. Besides the indisputable grandness of the Great Pyramids, genuinely welcoming people meant all the difference to us. Being invited into a bakery and offered hot flat bread straight from an old wrought iron oven, chatting with a group of taxi drivers over a cup of tea, and our very helpful hotel staff more than rewarded us for our patience with Cairo's chaos.
Jewels buried by a chaotic way of life are waiting to be discovered on all scales, creating a societal equivalent to the fractal structures of the Mandelbrot set. Looking at Cairo with a magnifying glass, smaller places full of gems and disorder, such as the Khan al-Khalili and the Egyptian Museum, appear. The Khan al-Khalili is an enormous market where true treasures can be found in historical buildings, or in high quality handcrafts among such rip-offs as passing 60ml perfume bottles for 100ml, banana leaves for papyrus, and plastic for mother-of-pearl. Give overpriced tea at the Lonely Planet-praised coffee shop, Fishawi's, a miss, and look for authentic food among the usual Middle-Eastern fair of shawarma, falafel, kebab, kofta, and baklava: filled pigeon, kushari (a mix of macaroni, broken spaghetti, lentils, chickpeas, and a flavorful tomato sauce topped with fried onions - a spicy sauce or garlic sauce is served on the side), or fiteer (an Egyptian pizza-like dish made out of a dough with cheese inside, with sweet or savory toppings). The Egyptian Museum is an unbelievably large collection of archeaological finds, presented with a mind-boggling lack of coordination and space. To take everything in would mean spending weeks in the museum. The royal mummies and Tutankhamun's treasures will surely fascinate any visitor, but hidden among a myriad of artifacts are, for example, animal mummies and, in the Amarna room, fascinating sculptures with thick lips, elongated faces, and strangely bulbous bellies, hips, and thighs. It is good to know that plans are underway for a new museum, specifically built to house the collections.
Zooming out from Cairo, the densely populated areas close to the Nile appear with their three pearls: the magnificent Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel at the shores of Lake Nasser in the far south, the majestic Temple of Karnak, and Luxor, where the royal tombs at the West Bank and the illuminated Temple of Luxor are to be found.
Zooming out further, Egypt's vast deserts appear. Deceivingly tranquil, the desert's perfect order exists only temporarily until the next sandstorm brings complete chaos and then a new order. Though harsh and unforgiving, the desert is home to Bedouin communities, communities which offer the opportunity to experience a more laid-back kind of life than in the Egypt of the Nile. Before we can experience this kind of life however, we must undertake one last hurdle: find a place to stay in Bahariyya, an oasis town a few hours west of the Nile. We just got off our bus and are nailed against a wall by touts from all major hotels and camps. Still sleepy from a short last night and a long bus trip, we try to listen to what is being shouted at us, to look at the flyers being waved in front of our eyes, and to remember the reviews from our travel guide. On top of that, the tourist police officer keeps pushing us, "Where are you staying? Where are you staying?", getting a little bit more impatient each time. All of this, however, is forgotten later that evening when we are sitting around an open fire, listening to the sound of a flute. A special breathing technique where air is drawn continuously through the nose and expelled through the mouth allows a tone to be played without interruption for more than 30 minutes. Drums and small harps complete the orchestra for this gathering where traditionally only men meet, but men and women from foreign countries are welcome. The dancing is sensual as hips are moved slowly in circular motion while arms are either stretched out horizontally, are up in the air, hold a stick horizontally, or push up against a stick or pillar. A teapot is sitting in the fire. Drinking tea always involves three servings in a small cup: the first one is a little bitter, the second one is a little sweet and with mint, and the third one is very sweet.
The next day, our 4 wheel drive jeep takes us into the Black, Western, and White Deserts on a 3-day/2-night trip. The landscape is dominated by black mountains and yellow sand, then by white rock pinnacles surrounded by more orange and red sand in scenic valleys. As we drive up steep sand dunes, our driver is often jerking the steering wheel left and right a few times in a row to increase the traction of the jeep in the sand. The mountains give way to a wide plain where we pass an oasis which could be the prototype for each and every oasis featured in a comic book. With nothing else on the horizon, the few palm trees on a little hill give the oasis the shape of a big pineapple that just fell from the sky and drilled itself two thirds into the ground. Further along, smooth white rock formations look like icing sugar covered pastries. Then, white pinnacles are concentrated in a small area, many of them mushroom-shaped or anything else your imagination recognizes: faces, animals, ...
The first night, we camp in one of the valleys, the second night in the plain of white pinnacles. Each time, sunset and sunrise are magical as a veil is pulled over sand and stones, coloring them in all shades of red. In a lucky coincidence, it is full moon and the night is so bright that it feels like a day on a different planet - a black and white version of what
we have just seen in color. Our shadows are cast incredibly clearly on the sand, and the white pinnacles look even more mysterious. When we return from our evening stroll, dinner is almost ready. In the morning, kN watched as the heads of two chickens were chopped off, the bodies thrown into a barrel where they made their last flailing moves banging against the barrel without splattering too much blood all over the place. Now the chickens are served in a yummy stew of vegetables, potatoes, green chilies, and black pepper, accompanied by rice and bread. For breakfast, we have fruit, bread, and beans with hard-boiled eggs. At lunch, we enjoy shakshouka (finely scrambled eggs with tomato), bread, feta-like cheese, a salad with fresh vegetables, and mulukeyya (a spinach-like dish). After dinner, we sit around the fire and look at the Milky Way and shooting stars a bit longer, before covering ourselves with thick, stiff, heavy camel hair blankets which keep us warm throughout the night. We are fortunate that there is no wind during the nights and we do not wake up covered by sand.
Some of the gems in the chaos are well-known, such as the Great Pyramids, the temples at Abu Simbel, Luxor, and Karnak, felucca rides on the Nile, or scuba diving at Ras Mohammed in the Red Sea. One, however, stumbles across other ones, totally unexpectedly, such as delicious sweet rolls filled with jam and topped with hazelnuts from a bakery at Midan Orabi in Cairo, or a chance encounter with a dophin in a lagoon close to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. The dolphin decided to stay in the shallow part, allowing me to swim alongside it for a long time. From time to time, the dolphin would nudge its nose into the sandy bottom and remain stationary like this for minutes: Egypt's gems are waiting to be (re)discovered. Go, look for them.