November 6 – 17
And so, it began, a month of international travel starting with Egypt and finishing with Mexico, two countries we’d not been to with the exception of multiple forays into northern Baja California. We were curious to see how different, or similar, mainland Mexico would be from Baja, especially given that we’d only visited towns (Tijuana, Rosarita Beach, Ensenada, and San Felipe) whose proximity to the border and thus the states push then in a direction that might not be as genuine as one would hope. We would soon find out.
Our journey to Cairo would be a long one, connecting to Paris from Charlotte through Atlanta, then on to our final destination. Between flight time, layovers and time changes, we’d leave Charlotte on Wednesday at 5:30, Atlanta at 11pm, and eventually hit Cairo at midnight the next day. Flights went smoothly and our coordinated shuttle found us and delivered us to the Cairo Marriott Hotel roughly two hours later.
It was on the drive in that we had our first real taste of Cairo and Egypt, a roller coaster like experience likely duplicated in just a few other places in the world. The major streets here are wide, many three lanes in each direction and none have any kind of lane marking. This means that at any given time there might be as many as four or five cars spread across the road, all driving in a maniacal fashion, with honking horns ever present, the cars beside you separated only by an inch or two.
We checked in, the hotel lobby surprisingly busy at two in the morning and got to our rooms, two complimentary flasks of wine arriving soon thereafter that helped ease the transition to bed and not long after we all crashed out around 3am. The next morning, we met as agreed at 9am and taking advantage of access to the Marriott club level, availed ourselves of the breakfast there. Not quite 100% Egyptian but it did give us a taste of what we could look forward to from a food perspective. Remarkably perky after just six hours sleep, we hit the streets and started walking.
The hotel is located on Gezira Island; in fact, gezira means “island” in Arabic (so, island island). Gezira shares the island with Zamalek to the north, a relatively affluent and pseudo-European residential district, which is home to a number of foreign embassies. Affluence aside, this would be our first encounter with the reality of travel in Egypt, that is, the incredible almost mind-boggling level of garbage and filth that is prevalent country wide. Or least those areas we visited.
Added to this is the fact that Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world; according to The Eco Experts it is the worst. Throughout our stay we would see bits and pieces of blue sky, but generally experienced a gloomy gray fog that likely wasn’t healthy for us. Not far up the street, hailed by a barker touting a river tour, we climbed aboard a good-sized boat, the only passengers, and set sail for a 90-minutes voyage around the island and back, all for the princely sum of 300 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) or roughly $20.
This is one of the upsides to travel in Egypt, its extreme affordability; except for the quality of a couple of the hotels we stayed in at about $50 a night (wait until you hear about our great stays in that price range in Mexico), everything else we touched, food, drinks, and souvenirs were all downright cheap. We floated along on the Nile, checking out the buildings on the shore and the abundant amount of trash floating in the water and before we knew it, returned to the dock.
We continued walking to the southern end of the island, turned around and walked back north to eventually land at Pub 28, a spot we’d visit a couple of times it being one of the few places in town where you could buy alcohol. A round of beers hit the spot and before returning to the Marriott, we stepped across the street at a pharmacy to pick up a couple of bottles of the Alphagan eye drops I use to control glaucoma. Available only by prescription in the states, I’ve purchased them in Greece and now Egypt over the counter for a fraction of the cost here.
Later that day with time zone changes starting to hit us, Joanna, Marty, and I walked around the Marriott property. One of the tallest buildings in Cairo, it’s central wing was built as the Gezirah Palace for the Khedive Isma’il Pasha in 1869. Designed by Carl von Diebitsch to host French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugénie during the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the architect was asked to make it resemble the Palace of Versailles.
In 1880, the palace was seized by Ismail’s creditors and eventually leased to the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels, who opened it as The Ghezireh Palace Hotel in October 1894.
In 1919, it was sold to Syrian businessman Habib Lotfallah and converted back to a private residence, then was nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 and eventually converted back to a hotel, reopening in 1962 as the Omar Khayyam Hotel. In the late 1970s, two large towers were added, and the entire hotel was rebuilt, reopening in 1983 as the Cairo Marriott Hotel.
Jet lag caught up to me in a bad way that night; after falling asleep briefly I woke before midnight and could not go back to sleep, staying up until the morning, reading an entire book and a periodical or two. We’d meet up with our tour group later in the day and so energy depleted, I declined to accompany Kim, Marty, and Joanna when they went to a museum across the Nile. Getting my sleep patterns back on track took another day or so, but I was golden after that. And so, we prepared to meet our group and really get the adventure started.
Gezira Island: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezira_(Cairo)
The Eco Experts: https://www.theecoexperts.co.uk/blog/most-polluted-cities