Comforting contrasts

Calling all shutterbugs The Pyramids and the ubiquitous souks in Cairo

Calling all shutterbugs The Pyramids and the ubiquitous souks in Cairo   | Photo Credit: Photos: Aparna Karthikeyan

Where everything is exaggerated and every place a lesson in history, writes APARNA KARTHIKEYAN

“Oh, you’re going to love the bananas,” said our tour-guide, Egyptologist Dahlia, as we hungrily peeled the yellow-green fruit.

“Everything in my country grows under the brilliant, natural sun, and tastes wonderful; fruits are so sweet, vegetables are so delicious,” she continued enthusiastically, while the ever-smiling driver, Asharaf, nodded his head vigorously in assent.

After this dramatic eulogy, naturally, we expected the lowly banana to be a treat fit for the Gods, but what we got when we took our first bite was, alas, a mouthful of insipid, semi-ripe fruit.

The bananas were our first lesson in Egyptian exaggeration and the ubiquitous oversell that’s so prevalent through the country.

Everywhere we went, there were persistent hawkers trying to sell us “original” Egyptian stuff (often made in China) — papyrus, plastic pyramids, Nefertiti statuettes, basalt pyramids, scarves, perfume, still more pyramids…

But then, it was quite understandable, considering that Egypt’s economy is officially fuelled by tourism (and unofficially by baksheesh); it’s a country that openly plugs its past glory, hard-selling its ancient wonders to modern tourists.

Familiar sights

We were on a whistle-stop tour around Egypt, and Cairo was our first halt.

The capital city was, in a way, a comfortingly familiar sight — the thronging crowds, the harsh, white sunlight, washing flapping on lines strung by main thoroughfares, the constant, loud honking, vendors selling pita bread in the middle of a hopelessly grid-locked highway, the small hillocks of dust and rubbish drifting and settling with the breeze… it was not very different from any large, bustling Indian metropolis.

Except, of course, for those great, big pyramids, and the fact that everywhere you turn, a confoundingly long history lesson awaits you.

A city originally intended for two million, now packing in nearly 10 times that number (as our guide informed us), Cairo is one sprawling, congested, albeit sharply contrasting city, that is rich and poor, lush and barren in turns. The wealthy areas (such as Heliopolis, where the President lives) are plush and squeaky clean, with trendy houses and broad roads; the low-dive zones are quite sad…the apartments are seedy, donkeys are the preferred mode of transportation, and nobody seems to care that a thin layer of dust covers everything.

Despite the rugged, natural beauty — the verdant, palm-fringed Nile-zone, and the golden brown sandy desert — people primarily come to Cairo for its celebrated man-made monuments, the Pyramids.

A scene to behold

The Giza Plateau, just outside the city of Cairo, is dominated by the three massive, celebrated Pyramids. At 146 metres, with a 52-degree gradient, the tallest pyramid is… wait a minute! You can always Google up the fact-file about the pyramids. What you can’t, however, is the sense of awe when you see them standing proud, several millennia after they were built, under the cruel, baking hot Egyptian sun, the noseless, beardless Sphinx gracefully reclining at their feet.

You have to experience the neck-craning, jaw-dropping look on every trigger-happy tourist; the smug ‘these monuments belong to my country’ look on every tour guide, hawker and camel-jockey; and the peculiar feeling that several thousand years ago, men actually built these humungous things with their bare-hands.

After all that shock and awe, our guide whisked us away to the Khan El Khalili, supposedly the most famous souk in all Egypt.

Western tourists find this part of Cairo irresistible; after all, it’s got throbbing crowds and colourful shops along winding, narrow streets; its here that you see stall owners carefully cleaning out their store fronts and neatly rearranging the rubbish before the next.

Shoppers’ paradise

The shops themselves — many a mere hole-in-the-wall — flog everything from exquisite filigree jewellery, whole spices, kitschy souvenirs to naughty belly-dancing outfits!

The meandering, if dingy, alleyways also have the best vegetarian food in Cairo — fragrant, deep-fried falafels, made out of ground chick-peas, cumin seeds and garlic, and served with warm, fluffy pita bread.

We ate in an “authentic” café, surrounded by pesky flies, lazy cats and a steady stream of men who sell Mont-Blanc wallets and Gucci sun glasses (all, naturally, fakes) and despite us not buying anything, good naturedly calling out ‘Namaste, Shah Rukh Khan’. And that, of all things, thrilled the guys no end.


Flying into Cairo is a piece of cake; it’s all very civilised, very quick. Getting out, is, Omigod, a proper nightmare… the queues, the crowds, the chaos!

The currency here is the Egyptian Pound; the colours and the patterns are gorgeous all right, but good grief, how the notes smell!

Oh, and they have beautiful, fancy notes printed out for 25 and 50 Piastres (paise); all they’ll buy you, at a push, is a semi-ripe, insipid banana.

Egypt is a country that makes you thank digital technology, particularly 4 GB SD cards, as there’s no way you can come away with anything less than 500 high-res photographs!

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