cairo: markets

This is going to sound like a bad day -- but it wasn’t a bad day. It was a crazy day, a day that we’ll probably talk about in amazement for a long time to come.

Out here with the Great Pyramids across the street, we are not really staying in Cairo proper. We’re in Giza, and it’s not near or convenient to many other Cairo sights. It’s not a problem for us -- taxis are everywhere and very inexpensive. We’ve read great things about the Cairo metro, and there is a stop in Giza, so we thought we’d use it to get in and out of town. It turns out the metro stop is quite far away, but a cab ride to the metro is still much shorter and less expensive than going all the way to the Egyptian Museum or Tahrir Square by taxi.

When we told our hosts we would take the metro, they went nuts. “Subway?! No, you cannot do that! That is crazy!” We wondered, had we read the guidebook wrong? But no, Lonely Planet highly recommends the Cairo metro. We also found some great posts like this one: Nine Things You Should Know About The Cairo Metro. Then we realized our hosts are suburban guys who drive or take taxis everywhere. They’ve never been on the subway! So we told them, no, we checked it out, and we are going to do it. They thought we were very adventurous -- which I find a bit hilarious.

Today is Friday, the day most people have off from work and spend with their families. We had a leisurely breakfast and walked over to the entrance gates of the Pyramids. There were throngs of people, all appearing to be local, all queuing up to go in. I find it interesting to see, in one family or group of friends, women wearing hijabs, women wearing niqabs, and women without their heads covered. I also see some women wearing their hijabs a bit farther back on their heads with some hair showing, which (I have been told by some Canadian friends) is a bit more relaxed.

We got a cab to the Giza metro station easily enough. Subway tickets are 1 LE each, the equivalent of $0.07 Canadian. The stations are clean, the signage is excellent, and the platforms are wide and well lit. We jumped on a car right away. Only then did I start looking around, and realized Allan was the only adult male in the train car. In the post linked above, we learned that a few cars are reserved for women only. At the next stop, two women got on, said something to each other, then one said to me, “Ladies only”. I nodded, we jumped off, and waited for the next train, which came in less than five minutes. On the platform, I kicked myself for not being able to pull the Arabic “I’m sorry” out of my brain fast enough.

On the next train, there were a few women with families, but mostly men. I noticed for the first time that no one is in short sleeves in public, neither men nor women. I was glad to be wearing the black flyaway sweater -- the only long sleeves I brought -- over my standard brightly coloured tee.

Our plan was to see the big souk -- the market, or bazaar -- and along the way see some old Islamic architecture, find a cafe, and wander a bit. Three things you have to know for this to make sense. Caireans rarely use maps. It is extremely difficult to find a map of the city. Since we knew this in advance, Allan made good use of the small maps in the guide book and maps online. However -- the second thing to know -- there are very few street signs. You see them occasionally -- erratically. And third, it is Friday -- market day.

We came out of the metro stop and couldn’t get oriented, because there were no street signs. I said min fadlik -- excuse me, to a female -- to a passing woman, and she looked right through me, not exactly filling me with confidence. I tried again with another woman, saying in Arabic, “Excuse me, where is the Khan Al-Khalili market? Is it near here?” She looked bemused but helped me. She talked fast and used too many words for my vocabulary, but she did gesture in a direction, and she repeated the name of a street several times. I thanked her and off we went.

We walked up a narrow sidewalk with stores and stalls on one side and insane traffic on the other. There were people selling everything you can possibly imagine -- ordinary, everyday items, not stuff for tourists -- and all of them seemed to be yelling prices and hawking their wares. Some have recordings blasting: khamsa! khamsa! khamsa! (five, five, five). The tables are often blocking most of the sidewalk, forcing everyone into the street, where cars and buses are constantly honking in a giant snarl of traffic (which is the case at all times on all streets).

And people. People, people, people. Imagine everyone in Times Square all trying to walk on a tiny bit of sidewalk in both directions. I’ve seen nothing in Canada that I can compare this to. The closest thing I’ve seen is in our old neighbourhood in Washington Heights -- West 181st Street, but on steroids. It was so crazy. And little did we know, as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

At some point, we started to see smaller streets that were pedestrian only, coming off this main crazy street we were on. We took one just to get out of the crush. From there we wandered a bit, seeing stalls selling hookahs, jewellery, scarves, galabiyas, and on and on. We also saw some archways or street entrances that were obviously very old, a very old mosque, some obviously historic buildings. Here’s what we didn’t know: most people weren’t out yet.

Soon after we got there, stalls starting closing up and the streets became much emptier. I remembered our host mentioning Friday midday prayers, and I assumed that’s what was happening. We wandered more, took some photos. I bought a scarf, clearly paying too much, but when the guy lowered the price, he said, “But you give me something, too.” “I give you...?” “Yes, you give me a present, any little thing, I will give it to my daughter.” I looked in my backpack and pulled out a pink CUPE pen. “This is for your daughter.” He liked that... and said, “But I have a son, too.” Amazing. I gave him a black pen, hoping it was the one that wasn’t working. It was pretty funny.

Then it started to get busier. And busier. And busier. The narrow street was becoming impassable. We could see there was an open area ahead, probably a big square. We thought, let’s go there and re-group. Oh boy. There was packed. Hundreds of men and boys were streaming out of a mosque, into the already full square. We were in a crush. We saw a narrow side street, and jumped into it.

This street was fairly empty and quiet-ish. Men hawking items in their stalls would recognize tourists and call out: “Smile! Do you want to buy?” or amusing things like “Let me take your money!” or “Scarf for one million dollars! No? OK, five thousand!” If there were other tourists around, I didn’t see them.

Allan knew of a very old, historic cafe in the area that he really wants to find. (We may yet find it, with the help of a guide.) It has no street address, and I felt it was a bit needle-in-haystack or random chance, but who knows, we might stumble on it. Now we don’t know how this happened, but we found ourselves in a complete human crush. Imagine a narrow cobblestone street, small cubicles of stores on either side, but every store has an outer stall sticking out into the street. All the salespeople are yelling, and some have those recordings going. And down a tiny, narrow center lane, all the people in Times Square are moving -- in both directions.

You will think that I am exaggerating, and yet no matter what I write, it is understatement. We were absolutely crushed from all sides. Every so often a space would open up, perhaps a stall was closing up or momentarily empty. We jump aside and just stand there catching our breath, then steel ourselves to re-join the human river.

Being short, I sometimes find crowds very unpleasant, but I am not afraid of crowds. However, I am terrified of being separated from Allan and not knowing where he is. We once lost track of each other in The Strand, a big used bookstore in New York. When we found each other, I was so shook up, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. Today, in that market, I found it impossible to walk ahead of Allan unless I put my hand in back of me and he held it, or even just linked fingers. I felt more comfortable with him walking ahead of me, and me holding on to the strap of the camera bag. Because, oh yeah, we have the camera bag and a backpack with us. But if Allan’s ahead of me, then people are behind me, and they are too close, and it’s giving me the creeps.

This went on for blocks and blocks and blocks. There were so many people. Every so often someone would be pushing a hand-truck or wheelbarrow loaded with bales through the crowd, so everyone had to somehow move over to let him pass. And every once in a while, a young man would pass carrying a tray like a waiter, with a coffee or a bottle of water and a glass. We had no idea where they came from or where they were going.

The stores we were passing were mostly the same, and total overkill. Walls of scarves and galabeyas. Mountains of cheap plastic beads. Socks, sheets, towels, shirts, pants, shoes, bras, slippers. I cannot imagine actually shopping in this environment.

In one of our momentary breathers, we both said, this is quite an experience, something we’ve never seen before -- and now we’ve had enough, can we get out of here, please?

After maybe 30 minutes of this, I looked ahead and saw a bus drive by. That meant we were headed to a main street! It gave us hope. We slogged onwards, and finally, Allah be praised, we were out.

We just stood there, trying to catch our breath. And where were we? We had no idea. We walked a little ways -- back to crazy honking blaring traffic on one side and shops on the other -- hoping we would see a cafe, but never did. In fact, the entire time we were in the market, we never passed one place to eat or have a cup of tea.

After a few blocks down this larger street, I had the idea of getting a cab -- to anywhere. We decided to go to Tahrir Square, just to name a place we knew, and because we knew there would be cafes and restaurants in the area. We got a cab, and all my hard-earned Arabic was wasted. I forgot all of Mango’s lovely “cultural notes” and blurted out where I wanted to go and asked how much. Only as we were driving along did I realize I should have and could have been much more polite and friendly.

But we were sitting. We were moving. It was nice.

At Midan Tahrir (Tahrir Square), we actually found a map. Although there were no street signs, Allan figured out where we might go. We stuck close to some locals to cross the traffic circle -- definitely the best approach -- and after a short walk, found Cafe Riche. It’s supposed to be a Cairo institution, although mostly frequented by ex-pats and foreigners. We were very happy to be sitting, and eating. There was space around us. Ahhh.

I had a Turkish coffee -- which I must say is something like drinking sand, and we had beer, and some nondescript food which was very wonderful. More walking, which did not please me, and we found another cafe Allan had read about, called Kunst Gallery, “books, art, coffee”. Everyone there was young and hip. More tea with mint, which I’ve discovered is very good with a touch of sugar. (I don’t normally drink anything with sugar in it.)

From there we wanted to find a metro stop, but we also wanted to get something else to eat, or at least pick up something to bring home. I was so tired of walking, and so completely sick of not knowing where we were, that I was almost ready to just take a cab all the way back to Giza. But this time when I asked a woman for directions, she was very nice, I understood her directions, and we were very nearby!

And then food appeared! A stand selling feteer, kind of like a flat bread pizza that is rolled up for easy handling. We got one of those, then smelled the unmistakably delicious smell of meat on a grill. A man was grilling koftas and kebabs, in the street, next to two tiny tables and some plastic chairs. We ordered some, and they came two kebabs and two pitas per order. We had a really hard time understanding how much they cost. It sounded like 62 LEs for two orders. This seemed like a lot of money in this context, but on the other hand, I’ve never had anyone selling street food try to rip me off, anywhere. This is my problem with a culture of haggling. I don’t want to be ripped off, but I also don’t want to insult you. Just tell me the price! If it’s worth it to me, I’ll pay it. If I can’t afford it, I’ll walk away. We were very surprised at being asked for 62 pounds for 2 orders of take-away food, but if the price was special, then everyone around the cart, including other locals buying the same food, kept their faces perfectly deadpan while they watched a bit of theatre.

The subway was indeed nearby! We hopped on a train easily, and were in Giza very quickly. Tell your friends, the Cairo metro is great. From there, we got in a cab... who was very nice, but didn’t know the way. We had the hotel business card with us, but I couldn’t find it in my backpack. The cab driver pulled over, turned off the meter and waited patiently while I looked, but in the end, we paid him, thanked him, and waited for another cab. (And yes, found the business card.) The second cab got us back to the hotel. We picked up some water and chips (more special tourist prices), then headed to the roof with our kebabs -- catching the end of the sound and light show, in French.

Today we felt like we spent a lot of money. While I was writing this, we tallied our spending for the day. Two subway rides, four long cab rides, two pashima scarves, four cups of tea and coffee, two beers, two appetizers, an entree, four kebabs, two 2-litre bottles of water and a bag of chips. Grand total: 765 Egyptian pounds, or $53.55 Canadian.

Photos of Cairo can be found here.

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