Note: I was in Cairo for an overnight layover back in March. I wrote this shortly after and never posted it. Oops. Better late than never?
It was a long day. After spending half a day in Rome’s airport I was off to Cairo. My overnight layover of 15 hours was just too long to want to spend at the airport, so I sucked it up and stayed in town. I had toured Egypt two years ago on my first backpacking trip. The sites are lovely, and I had a great time, but I despised Cairo. Polluted and dirty, combined with an insane amount of traffic and touts, I was not exactly looking forward to it. Upon arrival, I bought my visa from the bank and exchanged 15 Euros for 102 Egyptian pounds (EP). On my first trip, I took a taxi from the airport into town for 70 Egyptian pounds (or about $10 USD). Half asleep the night before this flight, I Googled public transport from the Cairo airport to the city center and, always up for an adventure, decided to give it a whirl. Why not? The website said that I could take air-conditioned Bus 356 from Terminal 1 and get off at Ramses Station for just 2 EP! I scrawled a quick map in my sketchbook, noting 3 roads, Ramses Station, and my hotel.
Arriving in Cairo
After landing, I went to baggage claim, and to my relief my bag was the third one to come out on the conveyor. Sadly, my bags didn’t make it last time so I breathed a sigh of relief to see my blue bag emerge from behind the flaps. At this point I had already been asked about five times if I wanted to take a taxi. I wasn’t sure where to pick up the bus, but spotted a small Information counter. The gentleman behind it was very friendly, pointed me in the direction of the shuttle bus I needed to take to Terminal 1, and told me that I could catch the bus into the city there. Sounds easy enough. I made my way at the automatic doors and was of course stopped again for taxis. I brushed it off and continued walking when a woman insisted I tell her where I was going. “Ramses Station,” I replied. She offered me a taxi, and I kept walking, taking in all of the buses I saw and not having a clue which one was the shuttle bus. “No thanks,” I said over my shoulder, “I’m taking the bus.” She hollered after me, “It’s the last one at the end!” Wait, what? I have to admit, I was caught off guard. Sure, she tried to get me to take a taxi, but when it was obvious that I wasn’t interested, she tried to help. Feeling slightly bad, I hopped on the standing-room-only bus clearly marked ‘Shuttle Bus’ on the side. As people continued to trickle on, I noticed there were no females and no foreigners. Wanting to make eye contact and smile, I resisted the urge, and resorted to staring at the ever-growing pile of luggage on the floor. It stopped at Terminal 2 and then made a second stop by a parking lot. A small wave of panic set in. Is this where I catch the bus? I ask a man in a business suit, and he told me to wait. Another gentleman overheard me speak English and started asking me questions. “Where are you from? Why are you here? Only 1 night?! You’ve been to Aswan? We’re from Aswan.”
The shuttle bus came to a third stop, and he tells me to get off there. Thankful, I ran across a busy street to a lowlit bus gathering. None of the buses had numbers. I stop in the middle of the cluster, and have the I’m-a-lost-tourist look as I spin 360 degrees to get my bearings and decide my next move. I see the man I had been conversing with from the shuttle and gravitate towards him. “That one there. We must hurry!” He points, and I run after him. He starts to get on, and it’s the wrong bus. We jump over to the one next to it, and I catch the woman in the first seat say Ramses. I step on, and have 40 pairs of eyes staring at me. The interior of the bus has a grime build-up that probably hasn’t been touched since the 80s. I quickly try to take a seat towards the front next to a woman. Small backpack on floor, large backpack crammed on lap, and I’m in. The bus driver comes around to collect the 2 Egyptian pound fee (about $0.40) for a savings of 68 EP compared to my first time in Cairo. The bus lurches out of the station and we throw ourselves into the chaos of lively Cairo traffic. My fellow friends and I hop off at Ramses Station. I shake hands and thank him for his generous help. He wishes me well.
I pull out my cryptic map and curse myself for not making better notes. I start squeezing through the crowds, head in the direction I think I should be going and stop to ask a man with a big gun (all of the police and traffic cops have them) where Orabi Metro station is. He points, says a few things in Arabic, and I continue on. After finding the Metro, I had a line on my map not labeled. I believed it to be Orabi Street and question another man about it. He tells me we’re on Orabi. Now time to get across the 6 to 8 lanes of traffic (there are no set lanes so people are all over the place). In Egypt I always follow the locals across the street. This man caught my drift and told me to follow him. I find a street sign with a similar name of the one I’m looking for. You have to pay attention in Arabic countries because every map will spell a street differently in English. I stop someone in a business suit and ask him if he knows of New Palace Hotel. He doesn’t but again, tells me to follow him. He was waiting for a minibus but instead takes me to a shopkeeper to inquire. We are just up the street from the hotel and he insists on making sure I get there.
New Palace Hotel
I make it to the hotel, and I don’t see a label for what floor its on. I decide to take the stairs because I don’t think I’m in a very tall building. I reach the second floor, which looks abandoned with dark spaces with no doors. Continue on to the third and fourth floors where it appears there are apartments. Well, when I reached the 7th floor, I found the New Palace Hotel. I literally drop my bags on the couch, wipe my perspiring face, and between breaths tell him that I’m checking in. For 35 Egyptian Pounds (less than $5), I paid for a shared room but had it to myself. I also pay for a taxi to take me back to the airport the next morning, leaving me with 11.5 EP (or about $1.50). I leave and go out searching for food and water. Things start looking familiar when I happen upon the fruit market. I’m in the old neighborhood I stayed in last time. That sense of familiarity put me at ease, as I try to ignore the ‘Ooh la las’ and the ‘Very nice’ comments. I grab an orange, a liter of water, and duck into a cute little bakery. No bread, so I start asking about these delectable looking baked goods. The second one I point to is coconut based and a friendly looking woman leans over and says, “That one.” I take the local’s word for it, and ask the baker how much for just a small piece. He tells me it is 3 EP so I ask him to give me enough for 3.5 EP. Small is a relative term, because I walked out of there with a pound of this coconut dish that was divine. I return to New Palace (more like Rundown Palace but for some reason I like it) and find out that the Wifi is free. Cairo, you are definitely getting a better review this time. The plug is high on the wall and loose so I rig a support system to hold my computer plug by moving the bed and piling up my backpack, a pillow, and my camera case. I get a little bit of shut-eye and the taxi is there 7 minutes early to pick me up.
When I get back into the airport, it feels like I just left. Check-in was a bit confusing but I get through it. I have almost two hours to wait, and as I’m sitting I realize I have to go the bathroom. And then I realize I won’t make it to the plane. I recall my airport bathroom experience in ’08 where the woman sits at the door asking/insisting for a little bit of money and holding the toilet paper ransom. I have 0, zilch, no EP on me, because I gave the remaining 5EP to the taxi driver, thinking I would have no use for it. But I have to go. I walk into the bathroom and there is a woman cleaning but I see no basket. Where did it go? I step into the stall and go to pull out my own toilet paper when I see a roll of toilet paper. Not just any roll but a large commercial roll. The airport has free toilet paper now?! It was a done deal. Although Cairo’s far from making my list of favorite cities, it suddenly just inched its way up a bit more. I came to the conclusion that my overnight in Cairo wasn’t a complete waste of time- I see a small difference between now and my visit just two years ago.
Whether people’s attitude changes are real or just my changed perception, I’m unsure. But I think the toilet paper issue is concrete evidence of a societal shift.