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May 18, 2005

Nungwi to Nairobi to Khartoum to Cairo

Zanzibar, Tanzania to Cairo, Egypt

Wednesday, May 18, 2005:

After a final night out at the bars with the Spanish and a couple of Italians, KC and I woke up at 4 AM and caught a 5 AM taxi to the airport in Stone Town. I didn't manage to get much sleep during the one-and-a-half hour ride as the dirt roads were in particularly bad shape after a night of explosive downpours. It was sunny and hot by the time we reached the terminal, however, and because we were early we were able to check in and obtain our exit stamps quickly and painlessly (although a few Tanzanian shillings paid to a porter and an official ensured smoother processing by obviating the need for us to open up our backpacks for inspection).

Our 7:40 flight to Nairobi left on time (against all expectations) and passed over Mt. Kilimanjaro as we neared the Kenyan border. The snow-covered cap came startling close to the level of the plane, rising over 20,000 feet from the dense green vegetation at the jungle floor below. Shortly after 9:00 we touched town in Nairobi. When viewed from the runway outside, the airport appeared to be an enormous concrete bunker promising few comforts. This was particularly unencouraging, given that we had a layover of nearly 8 hours before our flight for Cairo at 5:20 that evening.

From the inside, however, the Nairobi International Airport told a different story altogether. "We can compete with your first world airports!" it seemed to say. It was clean and modern. Dozens of slick duty free shops and several outrageously expensive internet cafes ($8.00 per hour) stretched out in rows throughout the spacious and luxuriously airconditioned facility. Nevermind that everything was priced through the stratosphere, save for the liquor and tobacco in bulk that the duty frees all purveyed. Souvenir shops sold the same sorts of carvings and clothing you could purchase on Zanzibar (which was often overpriced as it was) for between four and five times the price. A restaurant offering a breakfast buffet of little more than bread, baked beans and runny eggs, wanted $12. Fortunately, we managed to find a very good and reasonably priced cafe with strong Kenyan coffee and good food in which to settle down and pass a few hours reading and (in my case) getting a much-needed caffiene fix. After several hours of this, the $8/hour internet cafe began to look like a bargain, and off to it I went. The connection was lightening-fast.

After more time spent reading and then browsing through the homogenous duty free shops, we checked in for our flight at 4 PM. It was then that we found out that our plane would be stopping for nearly an hour in Khartoum, Sudan --- something the travel agent who booked the tickets neglected to mention to us.

The check-in process began an hour before the flight, but once we had cleared security, we were kept sitting in a large waiting room until the boarding began. The other passengers began to crowd the place up and among them I noticed a number of men in an identical military uniforms, but each of them wearing a different arm patch that read "Police" in English and another language. Another patch on the opposite arm bore the flag indicating that policeman's nationality. I noticed officers from Finland, South Korea, Spain, Philipines, and South Africa, among others.

"I think I know where these guys are getting off," I said to KC, rather sarcastically.

"Where do you think?" she asked genuinely.

"Sudan," I grumbled, holding back a roll of the eyes.

"Do you think so? Hmmm. Probably."

The flight boarded on time and we seemed to be just about the only westerners on it, save for a few of the peace-keeping force. KC had a window seat and I had the chair in the middle, between her and a short but dense Sudanese man built like an NFL line-backer. He was dressed in pressed corduroy pants and a Ralph Lauren oxford shirt. I assumed that he was quite wealthy because, in addition to his immaculate appearance, he began leafing through the duty-free catalogue immediately upon sitting and down and ordered an expensive watch, sunglasses and PDA shortly thereafter (yelling in a bullying tone at the flight attendant). As he read, he aggressively elbowed my arm off our shared arm-rest and then dominated it for the rest of the flight, along with some of the space in my chair which his massive shoulders spilled out over. Reaching into his briefcase multiple times for papers, he shouldered/elbowed me repeatedly throughout the flight and seemingly without the slightest regard. I thoroughly disliked him.

The plane descended over Khartoum at approximately 9 PM. I was surprised to see that Khartoum at night resembles any moderately-sized U.S. city in that it shines with thousands of lights and features seemingly endless webs of straight, paved highways winding their way through it. The runway and facilities seemed well-maintained and modern as well. KC and I were among a handful of people who did not disembark in Khartoum, which surprised me. Most everyone else got off, including the peace-keepers (surprise, surprise) and my neighbor, who --- though we were way back in row 25 --- bolted aggressively from his chair and began pushing and shoving his way violently through the other passengers, including the peace-keepers, the moment the plane came to a stop.

We waited for a little less than an hour. Several Sudanese attendants came around to clean up the mess. One of the remaining Egyptian passengers, a rail-thin man who resembled Richard Pryor in a galabiyya, paced back and forth down the aisle, shaking his head in exhausted agitation and commenting in accent-free English about how tired he was. He then opened up a small flask of liquor and began taking long, medicinal swigs from it. He was kind enough to offer me some (I declined, but only because he seemed on the verge of telling me his life story if I accepted).

Perhaps 10 or 15 other people came on board and the plane departed once more. This time around, each passenger was able to claim a whole row of chairs for him/herself and KC promptly went to sleep over 3 seats while I took a nap on another 3. But before that, the flight attendants brought around our dinner, which had no doubt been taken on in Sudan. A piping hot fish curry reminiscent of a Spanish paella, I mention it only because it was easily the best meal I have ever had on a plane. It might also be on my short list of the best meals I have had in the last 8 months, period.

Shortly after 11:00, the captain announced that we would be landing shortly in Cairo. Below, the city lights spread out to the horizon. Home to over 16 million people, the so-called "Mother of the World" (although the city is really only about a thousand years old) appeared infinite from above. It was during the descent that KC, thumbing through my Lonely Planet: Egypt book, noticed the warning to female travellers: They should not travel alone in Egypt because of the perception many Egyptian men have about western women (which is, to be perfectly blunt, that they are all of them wild nymphomaniacs). "It says here that I should pretend we're married," she remarked.

"Hrrrrrmmm," I said, non-commitally. This was more chivalry than I had signed up for.

Once on the ground and through the gate, KC and I wandered through the blindingly white and clean corridors of the airport with the other spattering of exhausted passengers from our flight. The immense complex seemed very quiet and empty, with few other people in it, but for white-uniformed guards (not a few of whom held AK-47s). We paid our $15 for Visa stickers and were quickly admitted through immigration by a bored official. I had expected some sort of hassle, but there wasn't any. The baggage was processed smoothly and quickly. Within 25 minutes we had everything we needed and were ready to go.

Score points for KC here. She had a friend of a friend in Cairo and used this friend of a friend to arrange for a trustworthy taxi driver (the friend of the friend's friend) to come retrieve us from the airport and take us to a hotel of our choice. I hadn't expected the driver to turn up so late and on very short notice (KC had only e-mailed our arrival time from the airport in Kenya earlier in the day) but when we began to exit the airport, we spotted a smiling middle-aged Egyptian man with a moustache holding a sign with KC's name on it. The driver, Mohamed, spoke passable but less than fluent English, repeatedly welcoming us to Egypt as he led us out to the gigantic parking lot and to his car.

After giving the guard a tip (everything revolves around tipping everybody in Egypt), Mohamed began to drive us toward a hotel I had picked out of my Lonely Planet guidebook. The drive reinforced my impression of the absolute immensity of Cairo and the diversity of its thousands of old mosques, churches, castles, and bizarre architectural gems. It was all there, everything almost incoherently piled on top of everything else, stretching for miles in every direction and lit up with blazing red, green and orange lights. Mohamed pointed out neighborhoods and famous buildings as we zoomed past them in the maniacal traffic.

Eventually we reached the narrow, frenzied streets of downtown Cairo. Although it was now after midnight, many stores were still open and crowds of people were shopping in them and crowding the sidewalks. Mohamed wedged the taxi in a space just barely wide enough and helped KC and I with our bags toward the entrance of the Berlin Hotel. The building was a shambling monster of 19th century architecture with an ancient, broken lift and winding, sunken stone stairs ringed by rusting handrails. We had to walk up four enormous flights of these stairs to reach the hotel; the other floors were filled with clothing stores, dentist's offices, and charity foundations, among other things.

In the dimly-lit reception room a lone bell-hop of about 19 welcomed us in Arabic. He did not speak English and the manager had long since left for the night. However, he picked up the phone and soon had the hotel's proprietor, Hashim, on the line. The bell-hop spoke with him for a moment, then spoke with Mohamed, who was trying to explain something. There was a back and forth between Mohamed and the hell-hop and the bell-hop and Hashim before I ever got to speak with Hashim. KC was ignored during the entire proceeding, the first time out of many in which she would be treated as a more-or-less non-entity. However, I would from time to time clue her in on what was transpiring.

"Hello, may I help you," said the voice on the other end of the line.

"Hello," I said. "We'd like to know if you have two single rooms available."

There was a pause, then a sigh. "Yes, we do, and they are 77 Egyptian pounds each, but may I please ask you why you have your taxi driver here with you?" The voice sounded tired and a bit exasperated.

"Ahh, he's a friend of my friend's friend," I tried to explain. "He took us up here since we just got into Cairo and weren't sure if you would have space here or not --- so we didn't know if we would need to then go someplace else."

"Would you please ask him to leave now?!" the man asked in the same somewhat agitated tone. He didn't seem agitated with me, so much as he seemed agitated with life.


"Your driver is scum and I hate him (!). He keeps trying to get a comission from me. He keeps asking to speak to me but I refuse. We do not give comissions here. I assure you that this man is a nobody and that your friend or friend's friend was probably ripped off by him at some point. In any event, I am asking you to please tell him to leave now, because I do not want him in my establishment."

During this exchange Mohamed was eyeing me with obvious signs of nervous interest. He was blinking a lot and sweating, in fact. I didn't really doubt that he was trying to get a comission, but also wondered if this wasn't a commonplace thing in Cairo. In any event, Mohamed didn't speak enough English to fully understand what was happening just by listening to my side of the conversation.

"Ok," I told Hashim, "I will ask him." I gave the phone back to the bell-hop and took Mohamed aside.

"I think we are ok now," I told him, "but I would like to pay you know and let you go because for some reason the manager is upset with me that you are here."

Mohamed's eyes dilated, "Why? What? I think there is misunderstanding. He is worried I want money but I no want money from him --- you are friend's of my friend, that is all, so I drive you here as favor..."

"Ok, ok, but I think he just wants you to go, regardless, so can I pay you now?"

"No pay, no, this is favor for friend..." he protested. I began pulling out what I considered a generous amount for the fare (which was still less than $10 for a 20 minute ride).

"No, no," he said insistently, "tomorrow if you want --- tomorrow." During the cab ride KC had arranged for Mohamed to pick us up the next day at 1 PM to take us to see the Great Pyramids at Giza.

"Ok," I said, seeing that there was no arguing with him. Mohamed moved down the hall and KC moved off, evidently to talk with him. I picked up the phone again.

"That man is a fucking liar and I fucking hate his guts!" said Hashim with furious disgust. He was fuming on the other end. "He did so ask for a comission, and no less than four times at that!"

I wondered if Hashim didn't have the hotel bugged to have overheard my conversation with Mohamed. I also wondered if Hashim wasn't some psychopath and now, with Mohamed gone, he would emerge from the shadows with hatchet in hand and dispatch us both with a few swift chops. However, the place was recommended by Lonely Planet, for whatever that was worth. As for Hashim's behavior, I thought it extreme, but I was too nervous to contradict him, for fear that he would become enraged and toss us out of the hotel. I was reminded of the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld, only in this case I was dealing with the "Room Nazi." Should I dare to insist that he was taking things a bit too far, I could hear him bellowing "No room for you!" at the top of his lungs, then sending me and KC packing back down those four long flights of stairs at 1 AM to forage in the chaos of downtown Cairo for another place to stay. In any event my appeasement of him worked, though not without another hitch along the way, plus an interesting wrinkle.

"Look," Hashim continued more calmly, "I am sorry to come across this way but I am sick of these guys trying to extort money out of me and lying to tourists and hassling them. I assume he has tried to get you to book a tour of something with him as well?"

"Well," I said, "since he was a friend of a friend [of a friend], we agreed to go with him to see the pyramids tomorrow."

"Oh boy," said Hashim, "I am telling you that you should definitely not go with this guy. It will end it tears, I guarantee you. On the way he will take you to his friend or family's carpet shop or a papyrus factory or an alabaster carving boutique or something else, or more than one of these things, believe me, and then he will become very very offended if you do not stay for a while and buy something there. You should not meet him. You have paid him, yes?"

"Umm, no. He refused to take any money until tomorrow. But wait," I said, hearing KC's voice down the hall, evidentally talking to Mohamed at the top of the flight of stairs, "I think he might be on the landing so maybe I can---"

"What!" shrieked Hashim, in the same tone of voice in which he might have told me his hair had just been set on fire. "Is he still there? Please sir!!!! Get him out of my hotel, NOW!!!"

I gave the phone back to the stoic bell-hop and moved down the hall. Perhaps Mohamed heard the blood-curdling cry over the phone from 30 feet away and through 2 rooms, because I only caught sight of his back disappearing down the stairs when I arrived.

"He's gone," I told Hashim.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "Listen, my suggestion is that you leave the money for him at reception and he can pick it up there. Then don't call him or take a call from him or I can promise you it will be nothing but trouble with his kind."

"Umm, alright," I gulped.

"Anyway," said the Room Nazi, "I will have the bell-hop show you your rooms and help you with your things. After that I am going to have my clerk call you and give you a 5 or 10 minute introduction to Cairo and the scams that are common here and how you should avoid them. We do this for everybody new to the city because we are sad to see them get ripped off by people like your friend's friend."

"Uh, thanks," I said. Hashim hung up. The bell-hop led us just a short way from the reception desk and showed us two rooms. The first room he gave to KC. It was quite large with a very high ceiling and large windows covered in purple velvet curtains. My room was perhaps twice the size and the purple velvet curtains gave way to balconies overlooking the neon-lit streets below. Both rooms had air-conditioning, which was one of the main reasons we picked the Berlin Hotel in the first place.

Back in the reception hall, the phone rang and the bell-hop handed me the receiver. "Hello," said a man's voice. It was the head clerk, as promised.

"I want to warn you not just about the taxi drivers taking you to their friend's establishments, as Hashim has told me the story about your incident tonight, but also about touts." He launched into an explanation of how I should avoid people coming up to me on streets trying to lead me places or sell me things. I pretended to appreciate this advice, but found it about the most obvious thing he could possibly have said. But then, interestingly enough, he told me about the tours of the pyramids and other sites that the hotel could arrange for us. I pretended to consider it, then mentioned how tired I was and got off the line before agreeing to anything. It was becoming apparent to me that Hashim had more than a slight interest in making me distrust Mohamed. He had his own tour operation going, as the vast majority of the hotels in Cairo do.
In fact, I suspected the man I was speaking with wasn't a clerk at all, but Hashim's tour agent connection. In any event, I found the whole thing as amusing as it was disturbing.

In KC's room, I filled her in on the various conversations with the Room Nazi, Mohamed and the "clerk." We agreed that we would lie about using Mohamed but go with him anyway, since he really did seem like a decent guy and, moreover, the recommendation to use him came from somebody who lives in Cairo and is fluent in Arabic and well-versed in Egyptian life --- also, Mohamed had been used by many of this person's friends and never with any known problem.

Our strategy formed, I went back to my room and cranked the air conditioning on full blast. I then settled into bed, wondering about whether the rest of my time in Egypt would continue in the same strange vein in which it had begun.

Posted by Joshua on May 18, 2005 09:54 AM
Category: Egypt

Hi Joshua,

I stumble upon your website yesterday and have not been able to stop reading about your adventures. Specially the South African bit. I am South African and in fact work as Johannesburg International airport, so you experience here was very interesting to read from the passengers point of view. I did quite a bit of travelling myself (about 5 years). Your experiences are bringing back such amazing memories. Thanks alot, I'm really enjoying following your adventure.

Posted by: Denya on May 31, 2005 08:58 AM

Dude, how hot is it there? it's hovering around 80 here and it's already too hot for me!

Posted by: Linda on May 31, 2005 10:54 AM

Denya -- thank you. Linda --- its pretty much sweltering all the time, but at least its DRY.

Newsflash: I played with the idea before I left but finally decided that after a solid 8 months I do indeed want a brief break from travels. I am flying back to New York for about 2 weeks, leaving Cairo at about 1 AM Wednesday morning (about 5 hours). I'll be catching the blog up over this period of time (photos? stay tuned...) and also, I expect, eating plenty of Taco Bell. I fly back to Cairo on June 16 to continue on as planned...

Posted by: Josh on May 31, 2005 12:45 PM

ok i LOVE how you are taking a vacation from your extended vacation!!!

Posted by: linda on May 31, 2005 02:21 PM
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