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February 3,2003:

I get royally confused with the time change and I'm sure we left an entire day on the plane. It certainly feels like it.

Jet lag?
I tried an herbal remedy for jet lag (No Jet Lag, what a creative name) and was pleasantly surprised that when we landed, I was fine. A bit bleary-eyed from sitting on the plan watching movies for 11 hours, but otherwise none the worse for wear. One of these little pills every two hours and I felt pretty good. Mark thinks it's all in my head, but hey, if it works...

Arriving at the Cairo airport is a bit chaotic -- busses and too many signs and too many people. We just followed the crowd, searching the cardboard signs held up by men in suits on either side of the hallway.

Our tour manager, George Iskander, was waiting for us near the luggage carousels. The airport was nearly empty -- they let no one into the building except a few "special" tour agents who are allowed to meet groups and escort them through customs and passport services. Luckily, our tour company has the right passes. Passport security was as deadpan and ominous as everywhere else, but let us through with no problems. While we waited for the luggage to show up, George collected all our tickets and such and went off to confirm them and make sure we're registered and set up for our other flights. It occurs to me briefly that I've just handed over my airline tickets and passport to a complete stranger.

The airport is really nice -- although under construction, a state of affairs that we will become very used to in the next few weeks. It has polished tone floors and marble columns. There is a man in a long tunic cleaning the floors by throwing a bucket of water down and then sweeping it through the hallways. The bathrooms are frightful, though. If you have to pee -- do it on the plane before you get off. Seriously. I wouldn't wish the sight of Cairo Airport bathrooms on anyone as their first introduction to Egypt.

Luggage in tow, we snake our way out through the crowds of people waiting for passengers and to the parked van from Treasure Egypt, the sister company in Cairo who handles the Ancient Adventures/TourEgypt tours. Our driver, Mr. Mohammed, is waiting for us and George tells us that he will be our driver for the time we are in Cairo. Our hotel, the Mena House, is across the city from the airport so we have a chance to see a bit of Cairo as we drive through towards the Giza Plateau.

First Impressions
We're both a bit overwhelmed, but the ride to the hotel is about half an hour. George gave us a quick history of Cairo and what to expect, and kept up a running commentary as we passed through downtown Cairo and into the suburbs near Giza.

The first impression I had of Cairo?

  • Traffic is...unpredictable
  • Cairo is really, really big
  • Much of the city looks "handmade" with no plan at all
  • There are a lot of police/soldiers in Cairo
  • Donkeys and camels have the right of way, even on the freeway

We're plastered to the windows looking at the brick-and-concrete houses and hundreds upon hundreds of minarets that stand out against the bright sunset as George explains how the "tour thing" will work and what to expect.

Cairo has 17 million people, in a city that is perhaps designed to support four million. Electricity, water, telephone, roads, and other services are severely inadequate for the number of people that live here. Seventeen million people.

With no trash collection.

Seriously. Cairo does not have organized trash pickup and disposal. There are no companies that do this, and no central dump where it goes. That explains most of the smoke throughout the city, though. People burn their garbage in the alleys.

We drove through the center of the city so that we could get an idea of where things are, a few times stuck behind traffic that was being rerouted for a state visit. The number of people in the streets was amazing. Some of the neighborhoods we saw are in big old stone buildings, ornately decorated. Others are packed apartments buildings, square, plain, brick with narrow allows and slightly leaning walls. George told us that many people build their own houses here, and the fields with 2 and three-story brick buildings that cluster on the shores of the river are mostly squatters, since the government isn't getting enough housing built.

Do-it-yourself housing
Apparently, most people hire a concrete contractor to pour the corners and floor of their house, and then do the brickwork themselves before plastering the inside and outside. As their families expand, they call in the concrete guys to add another floor, leaving the rebar exposed to add on the next time. Some of the taller buildings have smashed pillars on their roofs, where the government has broken the supports for another floor because the building isn't safe.

Not that there is much formalized building inspection in Cairo. It is too large and there are too few inspectors to manage it. Many of the buildings are clustered into rude blocks of brick houses, unfinished on the outside -- or only a single floor completely finished, halfway up the towering structure -- and leaning precariously close to each other at the top, leaving the alley space between them dark and cramped.

And it's smoggy! The sunset is brilliant crimson and gold because of the level of gunk in the air -- exhaust from the millions of old cars, belched out fumes from factories all over Cairo, smoke from the trash fires. We can see the buildings up near the road, but further out they are hazy. One of the guidebooks noted that breathing a full day in Cairo city air is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes. I'm inclined to believe them. There is a bitter, acrid scent of smoke in the air that doesn't dissipate until you are out in the desert, where the wind blows everything clear.

Giza, the area with the pyramids and our hotel, is far out on the west bank of the Nile. We approached from the south, and so we really did not see the pyramids at all as we drove to the hotel. I'm actually pleased at that. I didn't want to just drive past them on the road as we sped past, I wanted to start at the bottom of the hill and glimpse them through the city, first. Ok, a bit cheesy, but I wanted it to be special. These are wonders of the world, and I wanted to see them "right" -- although as we checked in, we realized that we have a wonderful view from our balcony to the Great Pyramid. They don't seem quite real outlined against the sky, more like a postcard picture. After the long day and the longer flight, things all seem unreal and flat.

Mena House is very nice. We're in the "new" part of the hotel, which doesn't have quite the charm of the turn-of-the-century hunting lodge which makes up the original hotel. Still, it is comfortable and the bed is big and we can sit on our balcony and see the hints of the Sound and Light show as the sun went down.

We take a walk around the gardens and the pool (closed now because it is winter, even if the daytime temps are in the 80s) and then climb into bed.

Tomorrow is our first day in Egypt!

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