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Welcome to Cairo
The smell. It´s the first thing one notices in Egypt. Step off the plane, suck in your first breath, and there´s no doubt that you´re in a new land. The smell isn´t offensive, not at the airport at least, nor is it overly pleasant. It is simply distinct. The mixing of millions of seperate elements; spices, insence, and perfume, garbage, dust, car exhaust, donkey shit, and cigarette smoke, grilled meats, freshly squeezed oranges, and hot puffy bread. The smell of 20 million people, living, working and breathing in a single city.
The suburban sprawl of this city is dense and appears to go on forever; a dizzying maze of unfinished brick buildings and colourful markets. As you enter, the smells begin to manifest in other forms; visual, tactile, edible. The dusty streets are lined with garbage and choked with tuk-tuks and donkey carts. Golden dripping chickens spin on horizontal skewers- tempting the passerby. Wrinkly old men with missing teeth and scruffy beards, suck on bubbling sheesha pipes. Kids in broken rubber flip flops chase after you- “what is your name?” “What is your country?”- then run off giggling.
Continue downtown and the cacophony of honking takes residence in your eardrums. A slithering line of beat up taxis- old Fiats and Peugeots snakes through the streets. Giant inverted cones of beef are spun in front of a busy flame, carved up, and stuffed into soft buns, crispy and greasy. Young men in slick leather coats strut past, followed by a wave of cologne. Bulging burlap sacks of cumin, coriander, pepper, bay leaves and countless other spices flank the narrow alleys that lead up to the markets. Every corner holds a new surprise, a new frustration, a new delight.
Egypt has been a top destination for as long as traveling has been a concept. The reasons are obvious. The wonder of the pyramids, the magnitude of Karnak temple, the serenity of floating down the Nile on a fellucca. But this popularity comes with a price. With thousands of tourists marching up to see the pyramids daily, the locals could be excused if they've become a little jaded. One can expect to turn down the odd request to 'visit my brother's perfume shop' and expect a little heckling- but feel free to heckle back, it's all part of the fun.
I recently overheard a backpacker explaining to someone her plans for the next day. “I'll see the pyramids, then visit the National museum…..you know get the flavour of the place.” I couldn't help but laugh. No the real Egypt is not to be found at the pyramids, nor at the museum, or at any one of the other world class temples and ruins that bless this country. Sure these things are worth seeing, but these sites are simply dramatic garnish on a country that is intriguing in its own right.
Drop the guidebook and get lost. Catch the scent of fruity sheesha and let it lead you to the narrow alley. Follow the spirited 'click' and 'clack' of a game of backgammon. Shake hands with the leathery man in the gallibeya. Sit back on a stiff wooden chair and sip a strong cup of sticky tea. Engage in a friendly conversation with a welcoming local and let the stresses of another place dissolve. It's the forgotten places in-between that are often the most rewarding, and it is here that the true flavour of Egypt really shines through.
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