Off the tourist trail in Egypt

Travel Destinations — By on April 21, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Gill Harvey went to Egypt to do research for a novel. While there, she enjoyed getting off the tourist trail and appreciating the sights and sounds of everyday life in Cairo and Luxor. She wrote about her experiences for the U.K. Independent.

It’s five years since my last visit, but it only takes one ride in a battered Fiat taxi and some good-humoured banter to make me feel glad to be back. Even as a woman travelling alone, Cairo has always seemed safe. This vast, sprawling metropolis – its population more than twice that of London’s – feels manageable, non-threatening, the sort of place that sweeps along on a tide of its own self-absorption.

On waking up to a hot, smog-filled day, I feel oddly liberated by my former visits. I don’t have to go to the pyramids, brave the labyrinth of the Khan el-Khalili, gaze upon Cairo from the ramparts of the citadel – splendid though all these things are. Instead, I can simply wander, reminding myself of the detail and bustle of a great city. It’s an option that’s open to anyone, of course; all you need is time.

One of the first things I tackle is how to cross the road. My hotel is in Garden City, close to the swirling hub of traffic that is the Midan Talaat Harb, a focal point of downtown Cairo. I remember the first time I watched people crossing here; how they seemed to merge and blend with the stream of fume-belching, honking Fiats, Peugeots and buses in a kind of death-defying dance routine. It was an art I mastered once; it’s time to do it again. A hand raised, Moses-like, to arrest the sea of cars, I’m soon ducking and diving with the best of them.

When hunger strikes, I conduct a quest for koshari in the downtown side-streets. Koshari joints are café-esque, no-nonsense establishments, and I’m served this tasty carb-fest in a stainless steel bowl with a matching beaker of heavily chlorinated tap water. It’s a mound of pasta, rice and lentils topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce…

Egypt is refreshingly cheap. It’s also sweltering, so when my soles begin to swell I head for the air-conditioned cool of Groppi’s. This tearoom is an institution, and I sip Lipton tea in an atmosphere of faded colonialism alongside gossiping middle-class couples and ageing bachelors reading Al-Ahram.

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