Out and About Cairo

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” –  Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings

Months ago, I proposed that we avoid Cairo during elections – just in case there were more violent demonstrations. We originally heard Egypt would hold elections during September; then they were pushed back to November, right when we planned on being there. Our last week in Tanzania, we followed the news and read UK, Australia, and US embassy alerts. Dozens of people were killed in demonstrations in Tahrir Square just days before we planned on arriving and the embassies suggested that travelers examine their need for visiting and to stay away from Tahrir Square. After much consideration and research, but decided to head to Egypt anyway.

We didn’t know what to expect and I guess you could say we had our guard up from the moment we landed. Cairo was a crazy, chaotic city! The streets were swamped with political advertisements and there was an energy in the air as people lined up to head to the polls. Every day, stepping outside to the smoggy streets filled with honking cars inevitably led to an unknown adventure. Here are a few of our encounters along the road:

Tahrir Square: The main metro exists in the square, so in the end, we walked through it. When we were there, demonstrations were peaceful. Some have been camping there for the past month. In a sense, it felt like a state fair, with families milling around with their small children and vendors selling cotton candy. I never would have guessed it had been the scene of bloodshed just a week earlier. There were small blockades as there have been some attempts to monitor who enters the square, and for what reasons.

Duty Free: One night we crossed paths with a young man who wanted to know our opinion about the elections (Not uncommon – another evening a man invited us to tea to discuss politics). Then he invited us to his sister’s wedding reception that night. And oh, would you guys mind going to the duty free shop and buying some alcohol for the reception? Whenever someone wanted to chat it up, that usually meant there were some ulterior motives at play.

Tea with the Police: Another evening we were taking pictures at dusk along a busy road. Earlier we had passed a group of kids that were chucking rocks at each other underneath an overpass. There were several spectators watching so we hoped they were playing some game… About ten minutes after we passed there were gunshots. Drivers slowed down on the street to inform us that it was not safe for us. Then an off-duty police officer offered to give us a ride. Uncertain of what to do, we risked getting in his car and were surprised when he continued to drive toward where the gunshots had been fired. A SWAT team had arrived and was handling the situation. The police officer then invited us to the police club along the Nile River, where he treated us to tea and invited us to come to his house for dinner sometime. He even accompanied us to the metro later and saw that we were heading in the right direction. What an incredible, out-of-the-way kindness.

The Christian Church: We went to a small evening service at an English speaking church. The pastor was from Minneapolis and explained how Christians had been targeted immediately following the revolution last January. The building itself was fired upon and the military informed the church it was coming to raid it. So the church packed up all of its valuables and even buried the cross from the alter in the church lawn (it was too heavy to transport anywhere).

Islam: This was our first experience traveling in an Islamic country. We were introduced to the call to prayer, which is broadcast through megaphones five times a day from every single mosque. Women dress conservatively here; most wear a burka, which covers their entire body. It’s most unfortunate that these coverings remind me of dementors from Harry Potter. Some women even wear gloves and have a covering over their eyes!

Bug Eyed Men: On two different occasions, while Matt was taking harmless tourist photos (one of a yam stand where we’d just bought yams and another of a McDonald’s delivery bike) an elderly man aggressively approached him and demanded to know why he was taking a photo (a different man in each case). Was he media?! Both times, the men’s eyes got huge and they took on an intimidating stance. The second time another gentleman actually intervened, explained to the irate man (who had stepped in front of Matt’s camera at that point) that we were only tourists and that we could take pictures of anything we wanted. Confused about the man’s hostility, we asked our hostel manager what she thought of his reaction. She explained that right now, people are concerned and protective about how Egypt is being portrayed by the media.

Overall, the people were very kind, welcoming, and hospitable. They wanted us to have an enjoyable time in their country and always wanted to know where we were from. Obama is not very popular in Egypt (more than Bush was, but less than Clinton) so sometimes we’d say we lived “South of Canada.” Not a lie, but of course that was always interpreted as Canada. Countless times, we were stopped and young people wanted to take pictures with us. Every day, numerous men (but never women) would say “Welcome to Egypt!” as they passed us on the streets. You had to wonder if people have always been this verbally welcoming or if it reflected a pride and ownership in their “new” country. In the end, we were thankful we didn’t avoid Egypt. As the political unrest continues, we hope the best for this country.

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