Reflecting on a brief visit to ‘The Vanquisher’ aka Cairo

Oh Cairo!

Cairo is home to millions of people (active population around 20m during the day, with the number of people actually living in it around 15 million if I’m not mistaken). It also happens to be the capital of the most populous Arab country – Egypt, with a populartion of 80m plus.

Going beyond the Wikipedia-esque trivia, here is a relatively new fact for you: Egypt was the most discussed topic on twitter in 2011, no mean feat considering the fact that the first quarter of the year alone saw enough events to fill enough news columns than the previous year.

Egypt had a revolution, and not a small revolution. They have managed to overthrow a whole corrupt regime, formerly spearheaded by Hosni Mubarak. Events started unfolding on January 25, culminating in unforgettable jubilant scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a few weeks later (Mid-February). What happened during and after that? In a nutshell: Plenty of political uncertainty (and uncertainty in general with everything), chaos, army interference, a dead economy & almost non-existent tourism.

Let me elaborate on the tourism bit. After years of corruption, mismanagement and less than satisfactory distribution of wealth tourism became one of the main drivers of a crumbling economy. The “bakhseesh” culture (almost-forced tipping) gave Egyptian lower-class citizens working (and not working) in the sector a chance to make a bit of extra money.

Egypt (pre-revolution) used to be a big destination, this is no surprise since the country is huge, has a lot to offer for tourists – the Pyramids, the Nile, stunning beaches and resorts. It’s a great destination for cultural tourism. Sadly this was prior to the “#jan25” revolution. Since then, the country has become associated with instability and violence. The local, regional and international media contributed to depicting this image to the world.

I actually started typing this article on my way to Egypt, at the “airport” (Referred to in Arabic as ‘mena2 jawwi’ instead of ma6ar). Right before I arrived, clashes started between protesters in the “Liberation” (tahrir) Square, at the time of writing, the clashes are still ongoing. If it wasn’t for the mainstream media and twitter, I wouldn’t have even suspected something was happening there. Cairo is a massive, massive city. Tahrir is a very specific area of the capital. My friends and colleagues who live in Cairo or visited during or after the revolution told me that as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter anything. The city is still very safe, nobody is getting anywhere near the hotels or the ‘fancy areas’ (Heliopolis, Zamalik etc). The only problems are in the Tahrir Square — which is not small, but is dwarfed by the size of this ever-expanding city.

I wish people would realize that it is still an intriguing town. In my brief time there, despite the fact that I spend the bulk of my time working and/or being with colleagues, I had no issues whatsoever, never felt intimidated or at any sort of threat. I did not encounter any bal6ageya (Egyptian slang for hooligans and troublemakers).

I wish I had more time (and friends outside work) to rediscover the city I visited as a kid. I don’t have many memories of it other than the fact that pollution is even worse now). The people are relaxed (or seem to be), you could tell that despite the uncertainty and the current state of (messed up) affairs the country as a whole is going through, people give the impression they are relieved and hopeful of better things to come.

This goes out to anyone who is considering going to Egypt but is a bit hesitant, just go ahead and do it! Just make sure to have some common sense and avoid the tension area(s), keep up with the latest news. Talk to the locals, a lot of people are happy to talk about what they think of the revolution and how the country currently is. Egyptians are very patriotic people. They are overjoyed to have “freedom” and they are not tied to Mubarak’s terrorizing iron-grip control of the country. I personally can’t wait to visit again, hopefully it will be more balanced between work and “leisure” so to speak.

Random notes from the trip:

–          I kind of feel bad, the only time I should have tipped was when I didn’t tip at all. The hotel employee did a service that was after his normal working hours and for some reason I opted not to. I’ll make it up somehow!

–          Getting around Cairo is ridiculously cheap even if you use cabs. Make sure you don’t fall for the drivers who wait outside malls ad hotels, as they will definitely try to rip you off. If only it was that straightforward when it comes to traffic. Relatively short journeys can take more than one would expect due to the chaotic roads. A three-lane road can become lined up with five cars. True story

–          People in general are humble and welcoming. Be kind to them 🙂

–          I landed at Terminal 2 and departed from Terminal 1. They are very average when faring against international airports. Heard the Egypt Air terminal (not sure of its number) is the best one (as it’s the newest one). I flew Emirates so did not have the pleasure of checking it out. Wireless doesn’t work there (jeez, me and my first world pains)

– This was my third visit to Egypt. The previous two were when I was a kid back in 1998 and 1999 with the family. Although I don’t recall much of those trips, but the country has changed. I was in Cairo this time on my first ‘business trip’ so to speak representing at a conference for travel blogging and e-marketing. It was a productive short trip.

Check out if you would like to get more details on the event and check out the #ioeti hashtag (Please bear in mind that you are unlikely to be able to see many, if any tweets if you are reading this a month or two after this has been posted).

This was an honest personal reflection on the few days I spent in Heliopolis. Hope I gave an accurate account.

One final note, this was finalized and published less than 12 hours after I got back to Dubai, so it’s relatively fresh… relatively.

Viva la revolution! Viva Egypt 🙂


ps. This was edited after being reviewed by the lovely Micheline Hazou 🙂