From the airport, we went straight to the oldest pyramid, the step pyramid in Saqqara. This was about an hour drive outside of Cairo and was interesting sightseeing by itself. Saqqara is truly empty of tourists and we encountered some of the most aggressive touts of the trip there. A factor might also be not having a guide at this point, but these guys were really pretty haggard. I feel bad for their situation. The problem though is that the very few tourists that are coming are people (like us) that aren’t going to be retaining the services of a “guide” ad hoc at a site or buying cheap trinkets at sites or falling for cheap ploys to get a little baksheesh out of us. I’m sure we’re doing our part, but two people can’t support the tourism industry for the country. I did bite when a “guard” offered to take me down a shaft under one of the pyramids that’s closed. There wasn’t much to see but I got a couple pics which was pretty cool. A couple of bucks seemed to make his day as well. Saqqara has a huge new ticket office and parking lot that was built post-revolution because of how long the tour bus queues used to be. Now they are back to using the small shack outpost as the ticket booth because nobody is visiting. There is a long road dotted with “oriental carpet schools” with names like “King Tut Carpet Weaving Academy” and such. They all appear to be closed, as do the many tourist-themed restaurants. The Saqqara site itself is pretty cool though, and we’d both recommend it to anyone with more than one day in Cairo.
Lunch was the sad American stereotype: McDonalds. This wasn’t an accident though. You really have to seek it out, and it provides for a different bit of people watching. In this town, it’s almost “how the other half lives.” There’s armed security at the door. The kids inside playing are well dressed and well fed. The adults have smartphones and stylish clothes. There are no beggars or scammers. Oh yeah, and the McArabia and Chicken BigMac are pretty good. It’s a nice blend of the familiar and the foreign. We usually seek out a grocery store in foreign countries for the same reason.
In the afternoon we visited the Citadel and Muhammad Ali Mosque. Not a lot exciting there other than some beautiful buildings and panoramic views of Cairo. The security there was tight like at the museum with all sorts of urban assault police types with machine guns. One group had a guy with gold Ray-bans on and I really wanted to get a picture… I weighed the odds of whether I’d get a rifle butt to the head instead and decided to not roll the dice. Oh yeah, and inside the mosque were a trio of Chinese guys that went through all the traditional poses, and then some, using a fake iPad, right in the middle of the mosque. There was a lot of chuckling and loud banter after every shot. That went on for quite a while. No matter where you travel in the world…. *sigh*
Our room in Cairo for the night was also a free upgrade to Nile view, which is gorgeous. The intercontinental is near the American embassy and has some pretty insane security. Apparently it wasn’t enough last January when the place got stormed by looters. Really though, just outside our hotel are makeshift barriers, assault vehicles covered in barbed wire, and guys with machine guns behind little barricades. I guess that should about cover us from a security standpoint. One of the guys with a couple machine guns smiled and waved at me and Martha.
So, this wraps up a whirlwind tour of Egypt for us. I really hope things stabilize here and the tourism industry picks up. Really and truly, we felt safe during our time here. There are some things we did different, like having a driver pretty much at all times. We didn’t wing it getting from place to place and didn’t walk the streets without a very clear plan and a clear understanding of where we’re at. In Cairo in particular, there are some areas you don’t want to be without a local to bail you out. I’m really glad we visited now and had the opportunity to see so many of these places without any crowds. The whole experience was very personal and very special.
*Pictures from today*
*Complete Egypt Gallery*