Cairo - a visit during the Revolution
Two good friends invited me on a trip to Cairo last week - it wasn't expected or perhaps to be particularly reIished, but after some web-surfing, it looked possible so why not? The Egyptians seemed to want tourists like never before, the politics were clearly fascinating, the museums were open but empty and flights were cheap. It was our best decision for years.
Dusk fell as we landed. 10 GB Pounds for the tourist visa and we were on our way to our hotel, met by a friendly driver and suffering the incredibly dense yet never aggressive traffic of the Cairo roads. Our hotel, 16 floors up in an old central office block overlooking the October Bridge, was perfect as a location yet unique in its strange mixture of facilities – three single rooms had been booked, and we had three rooms, but each with four or five beds. The lift went only up to the 14th floor, also the office of the Egyptian Urology Association ... It was cheap, it had free internet, breakfasts, tea whenever required and a friendliness second to none. And from one balcony, we could see the Tahrir Square side of the city, or from another, a few tanks patiently waiting for the curfew to start at midnight. Time to get out and take a walk!
During the next days, we saw the pyramids in Giza and Sakkara, visited the Egyptian Museum, spent hours in the Islamic Quarter's market and soaked-up the Cairo atmosphere – dinners in local restaurants didn't even dent our wallets, the entrance fees were as expected, and the souvenirs in the Egyptian half of the market were high quality and reasonably priced. Yes, the pressure to take a tour with a guide who offered “friendship with extras not included” could be a pain but it was possible to resist, given a smile and the gesture of the right hand crossing the heart. And most importantly, everyone at the hotel promised us that we would be absolutely safe in Cairo, and that's exactly what it was – four days without incident, sometimes alone in the evenings, male or female, even in the smallest of streets. The whole of Cairo's population seems to be concentrating on only one theme – the revolution and their pride in being part of it and of being Egyptian.
Walk anywhere and smiles are everywhere. Every visitor seems to be greeted with a “Welcome!” and if possible, a stop to ask your feelings about their revolution. Tahrir Square is not only open but it's a blend of soldiers, tea-makers, youths and families that must be unique. Children are dumped on top of tanks by parent anxious to photograph this historical moment – if a group forms, it's most likely to be a Military Policeman in a discussion with the locals. Music is live, order is respected, and it's very likely to find groups of locals painting not revolutionary murals but renewing worn-out road markings, or tidying-up the streets or even brewing-up yet more tea for the patient soldiers on chairs next to their tanks. Tahrir Square is certain to become a future tourism magnet of Egyptian history, to be reverred as are the others...
For some days, we even began to understand more about the many positive aspects of Islamic life, (especially in this secular country where women seemed to be as free as men and to comment about anything and everything) and to note that every society didn't need alcohol to refuel their happiness - their humanity, humour and friendliness was dominant. We, a near comedy touring format of the Italian, the American and the Englishman (with a Russian joining in from time to time), felt stimulated by the many discussions in the cafés and the streets. Even then, we couldn't resist trying the local beer so our last evening was in the visitors bar of the Semiramis Hotel, overlooking Tahrir.
This is a hotel that has seen Cameron, Westerwelle and other Heads come and go in the last few days as the world wakes-up to a newly emerging power in the Middle East – people.
In 18 days of revolution it had also had a few windows smashed (all cleared up by the locals next day) and witnessed the whole process from it's balconies facing Tahrir. And, of course, it has only seen the Heads, some regulars and the media teams as guests – the tourist market might now be slowly picking-up but it has been a very hard time for business. Are they crying over their books? Yes and no! A manager hoped that it will improve quickly and had great concerns for the staff losing their tips but could not hide his great pride in the Egyptian youth and military who made the revolution possible – he believes that Egypt, a country with such a high proportion of young people, can only benefit from the informed and energetic process that dared to protest and then surprised the world by the result of their peaceful actions.
As we walked across the square that evening, watching a few tanks lazily shutting-off the slip-roads to the bridge (whilst leaving enough back-roads open for any delayed traffic to find a way home), and then looking down on the whole scene from our hotel balcony, we wondered just how quickly the independent travellers would take to realise this gem of the "New Egypt “. One imaginative sign in English over the door of a restaurant seemed to sum-up our feelings – ”We have no branches!”.
Anyone who wants to see the wonders of the Old and New Egypts should jump on a plane or a ship soon...
Using Air Egypt, a reliable and friendly airline that's cheap at the moment, means that are suppoprting the Changes by keeping your cash inside the Egyptian economy... www. Egyptair.com or any of the agencies.
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